Federal judge denies challenge to Virginia prison grooming policy

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[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court of the Western District of Virginia [official website] has ruled [opinion, PDF] that the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) [official website] did not violate the rights of a Muslim inmate by not allowing him to grow a beard. The VDOC grooming policy prohibits inmates from growing long hair and beards except for medical reasons. The Muslim inmate claimed that the prohibition on beards violates his religious rights under 42 USC § 1983 [text] and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) [42 USC § 2000cc-1 text]. VDOC argued the restriction was necessary to prevent inmates from altering their appearance or identifying with a gang. The inmate responded that there were no security concerns implicated in the growing of beards, and VDOC had not adopted the least restrictive means. The court ruled Thursday that:

It is not this court’s duty under RLUIPA to select on its own the least restrictive alternative but rather to defer, within reason, to the judgments of prison administrators. Consequently, in analyzing whether a particular regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling security interest, the reviewing court must avoid “substituting its judgment in place of the experience and expertise of prison officials.”

Defense counsel for the inmate filed an appeal [AP report] on Monday to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website].

Last month, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] sued [JURIST report] the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [official website] for ordering a Sikh inmate to trim his beard in violation of his religious beliefs [Sikh Coalition backgrounder]. The Fourth Circuit has previously upheld [opinion, PDF] VDOC’s grooming policy prohibiting the growing of beards and stressed that “due deference” should be given to the judgments of prison officials.

Read more detail on JURIST – Paper Chase

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