Once again, conflict has risen from religious rights and freedoms being suppressed. In a prision in Grady, Arkansas, one inmate is being denied his religious right to grow a beard. Gregory Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad) is a muslim inmate charged with burglary and domestic battery. He is currently serving a life sentence in the Varner Supermax. He submitted a petition August 7, 2013 with a handwritten list of six questions and it has been in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court ever since. This petition can be found in its entirety online here: http://bit.ly/1rGKLtz.
Gregory Holt follows the Salafi sect of the Muslim religion. Salafis place great importance on everyday religious rituals and have strict rules for the “correct” method of praying. They are also viewed as fundamentalist’s that have rules and regulations on how to dress, what to eat and how marriages work (1). “Trim the Moustache and grow the beard.” Says the Koran. “Let the beards grow. Let the beards grow fully. Differ from the polytheists.” The point of the beard is to differ the followers of this from the Jewish and Christian people (2). Although the Salafi people do not agree with shortening the beard, Gregory Holt has offered to compromise with the authorities to only have only a half-inch beard.
The Arkansas Department of Corrections is attempting to stick to its “No Beard Grooming Policy”. This policy outlines that inmates may have “neatly-trimmed” moustaches and only quarter-inch long beards. This length is allowed for inmates that have skin problems. In the lower courts a deputy Arkansas attorney general named David Curran presented that inmates should not be allowed beards because if they were to escape, they could easily change their appearance. The point was also made that prisoners may be able to hide smuggled goods in their beards. Both of these points were relatively dropped when presented to the Supreme Court, and instead Curran focused on the idea that they house up to 60 prisoners in a single barracks, and worry that a bearded prisoner may alter his appearance and assault another inmate.
The argument could be made that this prison has its own political religion. There is obligatory observance of the prisons beliefs and it also suppresses the other religions present. Individualism is denied and there is certainly control exercised by the prison authorities of the communication within the prisons walls. One of the tactics used by the prison to suppress the formation of prison sub-cultures, be they religious or gang based, is propaganda. Although the prison may not be utilizing authoritarian propaganda, they are using democratic propaganda to show that Gregory Holt’s need to grow a beard is a clear and present danger to the rest of the prison.
The Supreme Court has now heard both sides of the case but has not yet passed a ruling. One of the justices has said that they should just dismiss the case because it is trivial. Both sides have offered substantive arguments. In my opinion, Gregory Holt’s religious beliefs should be upheld. He should be allowed to grow a half-inch beard and no more for the safety of the rest of the prison community. I also believe that the Arkansas Department of Corrections should review and alter its policies to be more in line with the requirements of the First Amendment.