Sunday, February 1, 2015

Religious Rights’ of Prisoners and Compelling State Interest in Regulating Action

In Knight v. Thompson, the Supreme Court vacated the ruling made by the Eleventh Circuit appellate court and remanded the case back to the lower court to be decided on new criteria based largely on the Supreme Court’s decision in Holt v. Hobbs.  In Knight v. Thompson, several Native Americans incarcerated in Alabama brought suit against the Alabama Department of Corrections because of the department’s “regular haircut policy.”  These Native American prisoners assert that maintaining long hair is a requirement of their religious beliefs.  Knight v. Thompson is very similar to a case recently decided by the Supreme Court, Holt v. Hobbs. In Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court ruled that a Muslim man—Gregory Holt—incarcerated in an Arkansas prison had the religious right to grow a half-inch beard. By remanding Knight v. Thompson, the Supreme Court is broadening the scope of religious rights granted to prisoners. Additionally, the Supreme Court is demonstrating consistency in its decisions concerning prisoners religious rights by choosing to not “blindly defer to prison policy based on the specific facts of the case” (Chaffee, Merriam, Seeman 2015).  

In both Supreme Court cases, the Alabama and Arkansas Departments of Corrections cited that they had a compelling state interest to restrict the length of prisoners’ hair and the length of prisoners’ facial hair, respectively. The cases differ, however, in how seriously the Supreme Court has regarded these compelling state interests. In Holt v. Hobbs, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that while he respects the state’s compelling interest to uphold prison security he asserts that “the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously” (Wolf 2015).  The Supreme Court, therefore, overruled the decision of the lower court and ruled in favor of Gregory Holt.  In Knight v. Thompson, however, the Supreme Court only vacated the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case back to the lower court to be decided using the rulings of past Supreme Court cases (like Holt v. Hobbs) as a guide.  The Alabama Department of Corrections presents stronger evidence in favor of its compelling state interest to limit the length of Native American hair.  For example, there is concern that inmates might hide contraband in their hair.  In fact, there was an incident in which a razor blade cut the hands of a prison staff member while he was searching an inmate’s hair. Additionally, there is concern for the health of prisoners with long hair.  For instance, a black widow spider once wove a nest in an inmate’s hair.

       In my opinion, Knight v. Thompson is a more difficult case to decide than Holt v. Hobbs.  I agree with Justice Alito’s assessment that there exists little threat to prison security by allowing a man to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons.  However, allowing an inmate to grow long hair obviously generates greater risk to prison security.  There are many who argue that prisoners should not be afforded religious rights in prison as they have forfeited many of their rights by committing and being found guilty of a crime.  However, Congress has specifically recognized a prisoner’s right to worship while incarcerated in The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) passed in 2000.  While it can be argued that restricting the length of a prisoner’s hair or facial hair will not inhibit a prisoner from worshipping, prisoners may contend otherwise.

            Ultimately, I believe that prisoners should have the right to freely exercise their religion as granted to them by the First Amendment.  However, if there presents a compelling state interest to restrict some religious rights for the sake of prison security, these cases should be decided on a case-by-case basis where the threat to prison security is seriously considered.  If the 11th District Court finds that the Alabama Department of Corrections provides strong evidence of a compelling state interest to restrict the length of Native American inmates’ hair, than the court should rule in the Alabama Department of Correction’s favor in Knight v. Thompson.

Do you agree with my assessment of judging religious rights cases concerning prisoners on a case-by-case basis?  Or should there be some level of consistency in deciding these cases for the sake of religious neutrality?  


Molly H. said...

I believe that there should be some level of consistency in assessing the judgement of religious freedom for incarcerated citizens. I firmly stand behind the belief that prisons of this country gave up their rights, including religious rights, when they made the conscious decision to break the law. I do agree that prisoners should be allowed to pray and worship freely within the prison system. But I also think that, when it comes to altering the physical appearance of the prisoner for so-claimed religious purposes, the line should be drawn. The prison system is designed so that every prisoner is expected to look the same, as they are all incarcerated and there are no exceptions to certain prisoners. I think allowing physical appearance differences would ultimately result in them standing out among the other prisoners as well as possibly creating a danger to those around them. I agree that a half-inch beard may be harder to hide a weapon in, but longer hair could easily conceal a threatening object. All those incarcerated actively chose to break the law, and by doing so, they gave up their freedom. The slippery slope is too dangerous to allow Native Americans to wear their hair long, just as it is too dangerous to allow a Muslim man to wear a turban or a Shiite man to carry the religious dagger that is common in the outside world.

Adam Drake said...

I agree that these religious exceptions should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. In this specific circumstance I do not see a huge risk in terms of hair length, but I also do not work in a prison so I cannot say definitively whether or not it is a true risk. I think as there were limitations placed on the length of the beard there could be limitations on the length of the hair that could allow some leeway for Native Americans to retain a longer hair length. I believe that the state has the right to limit the length of the prisoner's hair because they have committed a crime and waved some of their rights as a result. The primary interest of the state is safety and as long as that can be maintained through certain hair length limitations I believe Native Americans can receive a partial exemption from current prison regulations.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea that prisoners should be granted their First Amendment rights unless the state has a compelling interest to strip them of these rights, simply for the safety of the staff and other inmates. I also agree with your point that these decisions should be made on a case to case basis. If the prisoner is there for some petty crime then they should be allowed to keep their rights. However, if they committed an extreme, violent crime or anything that breaches their religious beliefs, then they certainly shouldn't have the right to maintain their religious beliefs under any circumstances in prison.

Kristen B. said...

I think that religious exceptions should not be allowed for people in prison because they broke the law and gave up their right to be free to do whatever they choose. I do not believe prisoners that are asking for these religious exceptions are doing so for genuine reasons because if there were extremely religious prior to breaking the law then they would not have committed crimes in the first place. If exemptions must be made then I agree with the author that the exemptions should be reviewed on a case by case basis. This is a slippery slope and if religious exemptions start being made then more and more people in prison will start rebelling against the rules and think they have the right to more luxuries and freedoms than they deserve.