Beards Behind Bars

Everything is bigger in Texas, even their battles over beards.

Dallas News reported last week that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is preparing to make some changes to their inmate grooming standards, and make allowances for beards. According to the report, the TDCJ enforces a mandatory completely shaven appearance, but starting this month, inmates who want to exercise outward religious expression will be allowed to do so in the form of a beard.

Dallas News explains that inmates who are granted permission to grow a beard “must keep those beards to a half-inch in length. Beards can’t be carved or sculpted, and each year, those inmates will have to shave for a photo — a measure intended to help prison officials identify anyone who might try to change his appearance in an escape.”

Can’t Photoshop do that a lot more easily? What if he escapes and keeps a goatee? Or a handlebar mustache? Does he have to be photographed at various stages of shaving to cover all the bases?

“Alright Andy, now let’s get a shot with muttonchops.”

While this new change in grooming standards would seem to be a victory for Texan prisoners, there are inmates who aren’t satisfied with these guidelines. One inmate, David Rasheed Ali who is serving a 20 year sentence for arson, is presently suing the state for permission to grow his beard to a 4-inch length and wear a kufi cap. Ali says both the beard and the cap are in alignment with his Muslim tenets, and he cites that his religious beliefs require that he “maintain a fist-length beard”, as well as “wear his kufi throughout the prison, not just in his cell.”

Officials point out that a beard of that length would pose security risks, such as concealing contraband and weapons. Like maybe matches. And lighter fluid.

Ali isn’t the first inmate to bring legal action in regards to a beard – in January, an Islam-convert prisoner in Arkansas named Gregory Holt brought a case to the Supreme Court in which he demanded the allowance to grow a beard in accordance with his religious practices. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Holt.

Currently, more than 40 state prisons allow beards of varying lengths, and so Texas’ policy change isn’t unprecedented. But as with any controversial topic, it has been met with mixed sentiments, with some rallying in support of religious freedoms, and others voicing opposition to the allowances.

Those in favor speak to the fact that religious freedoms should remain unimpeded by Congress, and inmates should be allowed the ability to grow beards without question.

Those in opposition point out that having broken the law and been convicted of crimes, inmates like Ali should be surrendering the majority of their rights, as they are in correctional facilities as punishment for their crimes. Some also question what would stop an inmate from feigning religious alignment just for the sake of growing a beard, or causing a stir about grooming policies, like Ali and his lawsuit against the state.

Then comes the question of cost. Allowing beards will undoubtedly bring with it a price tag when considering things like beard nets and extra photographs of inmates, as well as paperwork and manpower to process said paperwork. According to the Texas Tribune, the cost is “estimated by the department to be $500,000,” but taxpayer dollars will not be used to cover the bill – instead the costs will be covered by inmates’ commissary funds.

So the bottom line is that prisoners are spending money on their beards. Let’s be honest, who among us can’t relate to that?


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