The 1962 classic dystopian novel that high school students across the country still begrudgingly read, A Clockwork Orange, is the thrilling tale of juvenile delinquency featuring violent exploits and objectionable language. However, besides Anthony Burgess’s mastery of linguistic pyrotechnics, the novel asks the reader at what cost can prison bureaucrats deny human choice, dignity, and individuality, all justified by a claim to furthering state interests as Alex, the book’s anti-hero, is subject to a type of government-forced aversion therapy.
In 2014, 52 years after the book was published, we are still asking that question. This time in the upcoming Supreme Court case Holt v Hobbs.
Gregory Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad) is a practicing Muslim and inmate of the Arkansas Department of Corrections. He believes that growing a beard is a necessary component of his religion; however, compromising, Muhammad has asked only to be permitted to grow a 1/2 inch beard (the width of a dime). An exemption for quarter-inch beards is already allowed in the case of medically diagnosed dermatological conditions. Arguing a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), Muhammad was denied relief in both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which affirmed the prison’s grooming policies.
Upon this decision, Muhammad filed a handwritten request to the United States Supreme Court for an injunction. The Supreme Court granted it and also granted certiorari, with oral argument on the fall docket.
RLUIPA is a United States federal statute that passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by President Clinton on September 22, 2000. It was enacted to protect two areas where religious discrimination is particularly prominent: zoning laws and prisoners’ rights. In prisons, burdens on religious exercise are often placed arbitrarily, and the DOJ reports that RLUIPA violations disproportionately affect members of minority faiths. RLUIPA ensures that prison officials cannot place unnecessary restrictions on the exercise of one’s faith and protects the rights of individuals by allowing for specialized diet (e.g. kosher) and access to sacred texts (such as the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and various prayer books).
RLUIPA exists to protect the petitioner’s right to peacefully exercise his faith. Even while incarcerated, one does not lose their fundamental human right to religious belief. First, there is an integral link between exercising one’s faith and successful rehabilitation. For example, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of prison chaplains assert that having religion-related programs in prisons is “absolutely critical” to the successful rehabilitation of inmates. Moreover, re-incarceration rates drop by 12 percent when prisoners exercise faith. Nationally, in the past three years, religious rehabilitation programs have gone up - showing that prisoners have become more willing to exercise faith. Second, when protecting the right of free exercise, burdens are often placed unnecessarily on minority faiths. In a society where the free exercise of religion is guaranteed to all citizens, we must ensure that everyone has equal rights to fully exercise his or her religious beliefs.
Arkansas’s lawyers cite security as the prime concern against allowing Muhammad to have a beard. However, 41 out of 50 states allow half-inch beards. Even in Arkansas, beards for medical reasons have been allowed and zero security problems have arisen from beards in all prison systems.
As Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said: “Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience.”
What we lose when we allow prison bureaucrats to place arbitrary bans on peaceful religious practices is human dignity. Additionally, as the prison chaplain in A Clockwork Orange reminds us, “goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” In terms of prisoner rights, it is a constitutionally guaranteed freedom to be able to choose to live by your fundamental right of consciences. We deserve to be more than clockwork oranges and in a society that is founded with the basis of individual liberty; the freedom to choose our morality and how we exercise it must be maintained. Even behind bars.
Marsteller is a student at Smith College. This summer she interned at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty which serves as co-counsel to Mr. Holt. The views expressed here are her own.