When Arkansas Muslim Prisoner Wins A Case, It Adds to Legal Legacy

Last week, the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas prison policy that restricted inmates from sporting a half-inch beard.  The prisoner-plaintiff, Gregory Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is particularly interesting since he confounds cultural stereotypes, looking more like someone from Duck Dynasty or the movie Deliverance than anything Muslim; as a white inmate, he is a statistical minority in a place where whites are only a tiny fraction of Muslim followers, making him a double-minority of sorts, and perhaps the perfect plaintiff.

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This lawsuit pitted Muhammad’s sincere religious beliefs in growing a beard against the claim that beards on inmates breach institutional security.  In unanimously striking the policy, a skeptical court found little merit in the prison’s concerns, and included statements of a magistrate judge who spoke to Muhammad: “I look at your particular circumstance and I say, you know, it’s almost preposterous to think that you could hide contraband in your beard.”  Even with such skepticism, this judge ultimately deferred the matter to prison authorities.

Muhammad’s victory is more than personal, and holds deeper symbolic meaning.  It takes place in a state that has played home to ongoing anti-Muslim controversies, which include the creation of a “Muslim-free” shooting range and statements from Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, who has speculated publically that ISIS and Mexican drug cartels could combine to attack Arkansas.

Hence the case is a comeuppance of sorts for Arkansas polity, but it is also another footnote in the ongoing saga of Muslims suing for prisoners’ rights.  Such legal efforts have advanced the rights of Muslim prisoners, followers of other faiths, and the general prison population.

This rich history tells how Muslim prisoners have used courts to deal with grievances; the historical snapshot, much like Muhammad’s mugshot, undermines stereotypes.  Specifically, it tempers fears about Muslim radicalization in prison, and instead reveals Muslims as a normalizing influence in prison for decades—a legacy of using the law to fight their battles.

Muslim prison-litigation began in the 1960s with the legal birth of Islam in prison.  In the earliest lawsuits, Muslim prisoners struggled to have Islam recognized as an official religion and to have Muslims granted standing to sue in federal court.  From these early victories, Muslim litigants would go on to shape law and policy and become the most forceful advocates for prisoners’ rights.

Like victories of the past, the decision in favor of Muhammad has potential to benefit more than simply Muslim prisoners.  The case could potentially influence pending court decisions and litigation strategies involving other religious groups.  Other prisoner plaintiffs will be able to rely on this case, including Jewish kosher cases in the states of Florida and Texas, as well as lawsuits outside of prison, including plaintiffs in religious land use cases, and Native American plaintiffs seeking access to eagle feathers.

Perhaps more than anything, this case is a wake-up call for prison officials.  It is notice that accommodating religious inmates should be taken seriously.  The Supreme Court has trended toward expanding religious freedoms, most recently last year in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which exempted certain companies from contraception coverage based on religious conviction.  Muhammad’s case paves the way for further litigation both in and outside of prison.  Government policymaking should duly take note.

Although in recent decades, prisons have been able to implement practically any policy in the name of security, this case may signal an end to the age of deference.  Looking forward, prisons will likely be forced to offer stronger support for impinging on an inmate’s free exercise of religion.  More courts may become emboldened to call on prisons to justify their own policies; more importantly, they might start a tradition of their own in calling out bluffs made in the name of government interests.

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  • About the autor

    SpearIt is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding and author of the ISPU report: Facts and Fictions about Islam in Prison: Assessing Prisoner Radicalization in Post-9/11 America. He is also an Associate Professor at Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University.

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