Judge Denies Muslim Inmate’s Lawsuit Over Beard

Dena Potter, Comcast News, April 25, 2011

Virginia’s prison system did not violate a Muslim inmate’s religious rights when it refused to allow him to grow a 1/8-inch beard, which he believes is required by his religion, a federal judge has ruled.

William Couch, a 50-year-old Sunni Muslim, is a medium-security prisoner serving multiple life sentences for rape and other convictions. He challenged the Virginia Department of Corrections’ grooming policy, which bans long hair and beards.

U.S. District Judge Samuel G. Wilson in Harrisonburg sided with the department in a ruling Thursday. Couch’s attorney, Jeffrey Fogel, filed an appeal Monday.

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Fogel argued a 1/8-inch beard would be too short to allow Couch to easily change his appearance if he escaped or hide weapons or other contraband, which is why the department argues the policy is needed.

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It will be difficult for Couch to convince the federal appeals court, however.

The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the grooming policy after a group of Muslim and Rastafarian inmates challenged it when it went into effect in 1999. Many lived in segregation for more than a decade until the department created a separate living space for the inmates last year. Those inmates are gradually given more privileges in an effort to persuade them to cut their hair or beards.

Of the 26 inmates who had been in isolation but were moved into the program, 10 refused to participate and returned to segregation. The others are required to take classes in exchange for more recreation, personal property and other privileges.

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Couch wore a beard until the policy went into effect, but he has shaved since then. In court papers, he said he recently became convinced that his Islamic faith required him to wear a beard.

The policy allows for an exemption if inmates have a medical condition that is aggravated by shaving.

Virginia is among only about a dozen states that limit the length of inmates’ hair and beards, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association. A handful of those allow religious accommodations for Rastafarians, Muslims, Sikhs, native Americans and others whose religious beliefs prohibit shaving or cutting their hair.

{snip}

In his ruling, Wilson said he gives “due deference to the experience and expertise of prison jail administrators” in determining that the policy serves a compelling interest. And by segregating inmates who don’t follow the rules instead of forcibly shaving them, officials have chosen the least restrictive means possible to maintain security, he added.

“Though it is quite clear that an inmate cannot secret weapons or contraband in a 1/8 inch beard, it is not clear than an inmate cannot change his appearance by shaving it, or identify himself as the member of a gang by growing it,” Wilson wrote.

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  • Morrie

    Sounds pretty reasonable to me, now I hope we will be including a nice big 50 inch plasma TV, new leather couch and recliner and one of those beds where you can adjust the firmness?

    We wouldn’t want to be called RACIST would we?

    Or not willing to lie down and die for anyone not of our race?

  • Seneca the Younger

    I lived in the D.C. area while looking for work for a few months. The first thing I noticed was the traffic. The second thing was how multicultural it was. The third thing was no matter how multicultural everyone sticks to their own and there is not a whole lot of “open” liberals. Pretty much the opposite of Vermont from what I am told.

    This judgement would have shocked me if I had never lived there.

  • Jeddermann.

    These guys always find GOD and their religion ONLY when they are in prison. ONLY live within the precepts of the religions ONLY when they are in prison. Want to become a “good” follower ONLY when locked behind bars. OUTSIDE of the “joint” throw GOD and the religion in the trash bin.

  • White, Jewish, and Proud

    I have to say I’m pleased with the decision of the Court of Appeals.

    While I’m not a believer in arbitrary and capricious standards and policies, order and control of prisoners has to be of primal importance. The wishes and preferences of the prisoners should not be a factor in the implimenting of prison policies. That is part of the punishment for their crimes: the forfeiture of freedom.

    The plain fact is that most of these jailhouse laywers and litigants get a perverse thrill out of filing lengthy and absurd suits over prison policies, their trials, or their supposed lawyer’s incompetence. That’s how they get their jollies. It gives them a passive-aggressive sense of empowerment in a world where they have no power.

  • SKIP

    ” he said he recently became convinced that his Islamic faith required him to wear a beard”

    This guy, I am guessing, is a black American convert to Islam! He is Sunni, as are most Saudis, Kuwaitis and UAE and most of them do not wear beards and remain clean shaven. This is just another black using the system and will now want the better than average HALAL meals to be served him too.

  • Anonymous

    If the Muslim rapists in Sweden, Norway, Britain etc are ever imprisoned, this ruling can save the European courts a lot of stress.

    I would say the same of the rapists in Muslim nations, especially Saudi, where the young Filipino etc girls are abused, but we all know rape is vastly underreported in all Muslim nations. Even if it weren’t, they’d most likely punish the victims….

  • Anonymous

    “Fogel argued a 1/8-inch beard would be too short to allow Couch to easily change his appearance if he escaped or hide weapons or other contraband, which is why the department argues the policy is needed.”

    I sometimes wear a closely-trimmed beard for a few months at a stretch; the rest of the time I’m clean-shaven. The difference in appearance between the two looks is so drastic, that acquaintances who’ve met me only once or twice don’t even recognize me if I’m in the other facial-hair mode from what they first met.

    So this devout Muslim rapist’s lawyer is wrong: a beard CAN disguise a man’s look enough to allow him “to easily change his appearance if he escaped.”

    That, of course, plus the obvious fact that it’s not the State’s job to grant every silly whim of every convicted violent criminal from every religion on earth (including the made-up ones like Rastafarianism) within their entire penal system.

  • Anonymous

    Seems like we could send this Sunni Muslim back to Sunni Muslims or any majority Muslim country. Since so many Muslims immigrate to the US it’s only a fair way to balance ‘diversity’. Be sure and send all his legal case files over there too with him. Gotta make sure you don’t lose any of those important papers.

  • sedonaman

    This is a nuisance lawsuit intended to “get back” at prison authorities. The prisoner pretends a grievance, and the courts pretend to find a legal reasons to deny the grievance.