Muslim inmate sues for right to beard

Jan. 31, 2012 at 7:44 PM

AUSTIN, Texas, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- An inmate at a Texas prison is suing the state's Department of Criminal Justice preventing him from wearing a beard in line with his Muslim faith.

Kenneth Hickman, 49, first complained in November that officials at the McConnell Unit, where he is imprisoned, have demanded he shave his facial hair, which he required to wear as a Muslim, the Austin American-Statesman reported Tuesday. A court had given Hickman permission to wear a quarter-inch beard in May, but officials still harassed him and was told "only one Muslim convict [Willie Garner] could exercise his right to wear a beard," Hickman wrote in his suit.

The corrections department's offender handbook requires all prisoners to be clean-shaven with the exception of Garner, who had previously filed a federal civil lawsuit seeking "declaratory and injunctive relief" to wear a beard.

The corrections department said beards could be used to hide weapons and could hinder officials' abilities to identify prisoners.

Criminal justice experts told the newspaper it's likely the lawsuit, which was filed in state District Court in Travis County, will be thrown out -- in the past, courts have sided with the state agency.

Nine states, including Texas, currently have grooming policies without any religious exemptions.

"Change will inevitably come, but these things take decades," Chaplain Gary Friedman, spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association, said.

Hickman is serving 40 years for murder and a 1988 conviction for assault on a peace officer.

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