The Supreme Court was unanimous today in a decision that will allow an Arkansas inmate to grow a half-inch beard. The state's rule specified that beard length must be kept to a quarter inch; Gregory Holt, a Muslim man also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, had sought permission to grow the slightly longer beard in a compromise: He believes his faith demands a full beard, but was willing to accept the half-inch length in keeping with what California prison policy afford Muslim inmates there. In what NBC News terms a "handwritten plea," he noted that Arkansas' restriction put inmates in a catch-22: grow the full beard he sees as required by his religion and be disciplined, or give in and violate his faith.
Arkansas argued that contraband smuggling would become a concern with the longer beard. Wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the opinion, that "argument ... is hard to take seriously. An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by" such a beard, and the inmate would have to devise a way to keep the item in there to boot. Further, "Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a half-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head." The AP notes that more than 40 states allow inmates to keep beards, and NBC frames Arkansas as "virtually alone in having such a restrictive rule." Holt has previously served time for threatening President Bush's daughters; he's now serving a life sentence for a brutal assault on his girlfriend. (Read more US Supreme Court stories.)