Five years ago, the trade group representing America's prison chaplains conducted a survey to find out which state prisons allowed inmates to grow facial hair. The results of the American Correctional Chaplains Association survey were mostly positive for beard-lovers. The majority of prisons allowed facial hair, no religious reason necessary, while four states banned facial hair except for religious causes. And then there were the prisons in the South, that were not welcoming to facial hair at all.
Nine states prison agencies, all Southern, have banned inmates from growing facial hair. Unsurprisingly, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is included in that group. Muslims and other religious inmates have sued the TDCJ over the years, but the courts mostly sided with the state. The one known exception to TDCJ's clean-shaven mandate was Muslim convict Willie Garner. A Texas court denied his request to wear a religious cap but allowed him to grow a half-inch beard.
That's all coming to an end. The TDCJ is now preparing to permit any of its inmates to grow beards.
The beards must be grown for religious reasons and no more than a half-inch long,TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said Tuesday.
The TDCJ is changing its policy in accordance with a case in Arkansas that recently went to the Supreme Court. Gregory Holt was a Muslim prisoner who sued Arkansas for the right to grow a beard. Like Texas, Arkansas state prison officials argue that beards allow inmates to hide contraband and hinder the guards' ability to identify prisoners. The Supreme Court sided with Holt on January 20.
"We conclude in this case that the Department's policy substantially burdens petitioner's religious exercise," the Supreme Court says in its opinion. "Although we do not question the importance of the Department's interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner's beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband."
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It's that opinion that has left the TDCJ with little choice but to allow religiously grown beards. "Because the decision is not limited to Muslim offenders, we are preparing to permit any of our 150,000 offenders to grow up to a half inch beard for religious reasons. We expect the planning and implementation period to take about six months because of the size of our population and because ensuring the positive ID of offenders at all times is a mission critical to the agency," TDCJ's Clark says in an email statement.
The move is welcomed by the American Correctional Chaplains Association. It's "something we've been fighting for for years, and it just took time," says the group's spokesman Gary Friedman.
Texas inmates hoping to grow a nice hipster 'stache will have to wait, however. "We are still developing the policy but only beards for religious reasons would be allowed at this time and not mustaches," says TDCJ's Clark.
Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.