Supreme Court to Rule on Whether Muslim Inmate Can Wear Beard

Image: A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington
U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.Reuters file

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The U.S. Supreme Court granted a handwritten petition from an Arkansas prisoner Monday, agreeing to decide whether banning beards in prison violates an inmate's religious freedom.

Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, says in his court filing that the state's prison grooming policy violates his belief that "Muslim males are not to shave their beards."

The state's refusal to grant exceptions, he argues, is oppressive and forces inmates "to either obey their religious beliefs and face disciplinary action on the one hand, or violate those beliefs in order to acquiesce" to the grooming policy.

Last fall, the Supreme Court granted Holt's request to maintain a half-inch long beard while his case worked its way through the appeals process.

The state says that inmate beards are a security risk: prisoners who grow them could quickly alter their appearance by shaving after an escape. State officials also contend that inmates hide contraband inside their cheeks "and any alteration to the appearance of the cheek would be masked by facial hair."

In addition, the state argues that allowing inmates to grow beards can lead to altercations when prison barbers are accused of trimming facial hair too short.

Holt, who did time for making a threat against President Bush's daughters before being convicted in 2010 of knifing his girlfriend, was sentenced to life in prison in 2010.

The Supreme Court rarely grants handwritten requests to hear a case, but it will accept them from indigent defendants who have no access to a typewriter or computer.

— Pete Williams
Gregory Houston Holt, an Arkansas prisoner who says he should be allowed to keep a beard on religious grounds.Arkansas department of Corrections