A Texas judge has ruled in favor of three Native American inmates at a state prison who have been waiting seven years to win the right to grow their hair out long, contending that requirements to keep their hair cut short have infringed upon their religious liberty. Keeping their hair long is closely tied to the inmates’ religious practices and identity.
One plaintiff explained at the trial that fashioning his hair into a long braid would ensure that he would be able to be accepted by his ancestors when “crossing over” from this world into the next. Another explained that hair connects his people, “just like the roots of a tree.” They all argued that cutting one’s hair short should only be done in mourning; they likened being forced to cut their hair to “getting beat up.” A fourth plaintiff, who had initiated the lawsuit on his own in 2011, finished serving his time in prison before the conclusion of the case.
The ruling only applies to the plaintiffs, and not to the other Native American prisoners currently in the Texas prison system. The state may very well end up sending the case to appeals court, having waged the argument that long hair on male prisoners poses a security threat to the institution. The defense cited everything from lice to overheating or even suicide as reasons to prohibit male, Native American inmates from growing out their hair… despite allowing female inmates to wear their hair long. They argued that long-haired male inmates would be uniquely dangerous, for instance, in smuggling in contraband. “Male offenders are much more likely to smuggle contraband that is dangerous, such as cellphones, drugs, and sharpened weapons intended for stabbing,” argued the state. Women, on the other hand, apparently are more inclined to smuggle in cosmetics.
The presiding judge was not convinced and ruled in favor of the inmates, even if the change would require the prison to go out of its way to accommodate their religious practices. A lawyer for the inmates told the Associated Press, “Inmates being able to fully express and practice their religion is rehabilitative and reduces recidivism. It’s just good policy.” The publication cited a similar case from 2015 in Alabama in which an appeal by the state overturned a ruling that had been in favor of allowing Native American inmates to wear long hair. That same year, the Supreme Court unanimously concluded that Arkansas state prisons were violating religious liberty for practicing Muslim inmates who were prohibited from growing a half-inch beard due to security concerns.