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Court Says Alabama Prisons Can Force Native Americans To Break Sacred Traditions

Elmore Correctional Facility in Alabama CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/BRYNN ANDERSON
Elmore Correctional Facility in Alabama CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/BRYNN ANDERSON

Dealing a harsh blow to Native Americans’ religious practices on Wednesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Alabama’s prison policy banning long hair. The decision comes decades after Native Americans’ fight to keep their long hair behind bars was initiated.

According to the judges, long hair threatens prison security and hygiene standards because it can be used to conceal weapons and other banned items in Alabama’s correctional facilities. But attorneys contend that long hair is an integral part of Native Americans’ religious traditions, and that cutting it has “eternal consequences.” They also pointed to the 39 U.S. states that do permit long hair for religious purposes.

The fight against the Alabama Department of Corrections’ short hair policy began in 1993, when plaintiffs filed a lawsuit charging the ADOC with violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law states, “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution,” unless it “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The legal battle has made it to the Eleventh Circuit three times. In February, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court after ruling that Arkansas violated a Muslim inmate’s rights by preventing him from growing a beard. In Holt v Hobbs, the justices concluded it would be difficult to hide contraband in a half-inch of hair. The Supreme Court subsequently ordered the circuit court to take the beard ruling into account while reviewing the Native Americans’ case.

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While religious traditions vary by tribe, long hair is considered sacred for many Native people. Elders describe it as physical manifestation of our thoughts and an extension of ourselves, and is a symbol of a deep connection with the Earth. It also represents a person’s path in life. For some, hair-cutting is a sign of oppression and is only condoned when a person is in mourning. The act of taking care of long hair is also about preserving tribal traditions and creating memories.

But the matter of hair cutting speaks to a larger issue of Native Americans’ presence in the criminal justice system.

Today, the prison incarceration rate of Native Americans is 38 percent higher than the national rate. There are more than 3,970 Native inmates in federal prison population — a number that jumped 27 percent in the last five years. Native people also serve longer sentences, and research suggests that cultural norms may contribute to suicidal thoughts while they are behind bars.