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Smith v. Dozier

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

August 7, 2019

LESTER JAMES SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
GREGORY DOZIER, Defendant.

          BENCH OPINION

          W. LOUIS SANDS, SR. JUDGE.

         I. Procedural Background

         On January 24, 2012, Plaintiff filed a pro se Complaint alleging that the Georgia Department of Corrections' (“GDOC's”) grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. (Doc. 1; see Doc. 183-22 at 6-7.) Because the policy forbids inmates from growing facial hair in excess of one half-inch in length (Doc. 183-22 at 7), Plaintiff pleaded that the grooming policy substantially burdens the exercise of his sincerely held religious beliefs because Islam prohibits him from shaving his beard. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff sought nominal damages and an injunction to allow him to grow a beard for religious reasons. (Doc. 1 at 5.) After the Court granted Defendant's first Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff appealed to the Eleventh Circuit on March 6, 2014. (See Docs. 125 & 129.)

         On February 17, 2017, the Eleventh Circuit vacated and remanded this case, instructing this Court to analyze Plaintiffs RLUIPA claim in a manner consistent with Holt v. Hobbes, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015). Smith v. Owens, 848 F.3d 975, 981 (11th Cir. 2017). The Eleventh Circuit also appointed Plaintiff counsel, and Plaintiffs appointed counsel continues to represent him in this case. Smith, 848 F.3d at 978; (see Docs. 149 & 212).

         On remand, this Court adopted U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Weigle's Recommendation to deny both Parties' Motions for Summary Judgment and set the case for a non-jury trial because Plaintiff was only authorized to receive injunctive and declaratory relief. The Court held a bench trial in this case on November 5-6, 2018. (See Docs. 228 & 229.) The Parties submitted exhibits and filed posttrial closing arguments, along with proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. (Docs. 231, 232, 238, 239, 240.)

         Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that after a non-jury trial, a court must “find the facts specially and state its conclusions of law separately” and that judgment be entered under Rule 58. Accordingly, having reviewed the evidence and briefs in their entirety, the Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         II. Findings of Fact

         GDOC has approximately 53, 000 inmates and is the fourth largest prison system in the country. (Doc. 235 at 25.) Approximately 67% of those in its inmate population were convicted of violent or sexual offenses, and that number rises to 81% in the close security prisons. Id. at 26. Gangs within the prison system use physical features to identify themselves, and gang identification can lead to violence within prisons. Muslim inmates have been known to grow their beard and trim their mustache as a way to identify with other Muslims, and they sometimes engage in violence or smuggling of contraband as a group, similar to gangs. (Doc. 235 at 34, 130-131.) Muslim inmates can also self-identify by wearing kufis on their head, but kufis are not always worn by Muslim inmates. (Doc. 235 at 131.) Turnover of staff in GDOC's prisons is high, and it is unable to fill all of its security positions. GDOC is unaware of the percentage of violent offenders or gang members at non-GDOC prisons. (Doc. 190-3 at 5.)

         Plaintiff Lester James Smith is an inmate in the custody of the GDOC serving a life sentence for murder and armed robbery, among other convictions. (Doc. 183-3 at 12:12-13:22.) Smith has been housed at various prisons, and at the time of the bench trial was housed at Telfair State Prison, a close security prison for inmates at a high-risk for violence or escape. Smith has been classified as a close security prisoner, although a prisoner's classification can change based on his disciplinary issues or participation in groups and programming. While in prison, Smith has been found guilty of numerous disciplinary offenses, including, inter alia, failure to follow instructions, insubordination, possession of a weapon, possession of a cell phone, possession of a drug or narcotic, under the influence of drugs, bribery, injury to an officer, and injury to an inmate/one self. (Doc. 183-6.)

         Smith is also a Muslim, and has a sincere belief in the tenets of Islam, including the tenet that he not trim his beard and, that if he must trim it, to maintain at least a fistful of beard hair. (See Doc. 183-3 at 25.) As a result, Smith requested a religious accommodation from GDOC to be allowed to grow a beard, but his request was denied because GDOC's policy prohibits inmates from growing a beard longer than one half-inch for any reason. (Doc. 190-3 at 3.) Contraventions of GDOC's policy will lead to disciplinary action, and Smith has been forcibly shaven on at least three prior occasions. Id. at 2.

         Smith's affinity for his Muslim brothers has also induced Smith to violence within Georgia's prisons. For example, in one incident where his Muslim “brother” was talking with the lieutenant about getting his property back, the argument escalated and after the officers allegedly “jumped on” the inmate, Smith intervened and was given a disciplinary charge for his behavior. (Doc. 183-3 at 35.) In another incident where one of his Muslim “brothers” was allegedly jumped on by officers, Smith alleges that he and half of the dorm got involved, and that Smith struck one of the officers with his fist. Id. at 38-39.

         Previously, GDOC did not allow beards of any length, but after the U.S. Supreme Court held that Arkansas Department of Corrections' grooming policy violated RLUIPA insofar as it prevented the petitioner from growing a half-inch beard, [1] GDOC changed its policy to allow half-inch beards. Smith v. Owens, 848 F.3d 975, 978 (11th Cir. 2017); (Doc. 183-22 at 7.) GDOC's policy states that “[b]eards cannot be worn without a mustache.” (Doc. 183-22 at 7.) GDOC's policy also allows male inmates to grow their head hair to three inches in length and allows female inmates to grow their head hair to any length. (Doc. 183-22 at 6-8.) Georgia is among a small minority of states that restricts beards to one half-inch or less and does not allow any religious exemptions. Thirty-seven states, as well as the District of Columbia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”), allow inmates, either by their standard policy or through an exemption, to grow a beard without any length restriction. The BOP allows inmates to grow their head and beard hair to any length. When searching prisoners, the BOP uses a self-search method where inmates are required to vigorously frisk, twist, and move their own beards, and doing so can deter inmates from using their beards to hide contraband. (Doc. 236 at 116-119.)

         III. Conclusions of Law

         Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”) to “provide greater protection for religious exercise than is available under the First Amendment.” Holt, 135 S.Ct. at 859-60 (explaining that RFRA was the precursor to RLUIPA). Congress mandated that the concept of religious exercise under RLUIPA “be construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by . . . the Constitution.” Id. at 860 (citation omitted). Pursuant to RLUIPA, once a claimant establishes that a policy substantially burdens his exercise of a sincerely held religious belief, the government must prove that the challenged policy (1) furthers a compelling government interest and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering the identified governmental interest. 42 U.S.C § 2000cc-1(a); Holt, 135 S.Ct. at 863. Courts cannot “elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety,' and an accommodation must be measured so that it does not override other significant interests.'” Knight v. Thompson, 797 F.3d 934, 943 (11th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). Nonetheless, “‘[t]he least-restrictive-means standard is exceptionally demanding, ” and it requires the government to “‘sho[w] that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the objecting part[y].'” Holt, 135 S.Ct. at 864.

         Plaintiff argues that most other states have a less restrictive alternative than GDOC's half-inch beard policy and that GDOC's policy is not the least restricted means of furthering its asserted interests. (Doc. 177-1.) GDOC admits that its grooming policy limiting inmates' beards to a half-inch substantially burdens Smith's exercise of a sincerely held religious belief. (Doc. 190-3 at 1, 3; Doc. 183-1 at 7 n.3.) This fact is supported by the record: Smith converted to Islam over eight years ago, sincerely believes in the religion, and the policy prevents him from growing a beard in accordance with his religion and punishes him if he does so. (See Docs. 183-3 & 183-22.) However, GDOC argues that there are numerous compelling governmental interests served by enforcing a policy that limits beard length: safety, security, and uniformity, minimizing the flow of contraband, identification of inmates, hygiene, and cost. (Doc. 183-1.) The Court agrees that, generally, these are compelling governmental interests;[2] thus, the Court must determine whether GDOC's grooming policy furthers those interests using the least restrictive means.

         A. Under-inclusiveness of GDOC's Grooming Policy

         A policy is underinclusive when it prohibits a type of activity to further the government's interests but does not prohibit analogous conduct that poses similar risks to the same alleged interests. See Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 547 (1993). The under-inclusiveness of a policy indicates that it may not be the least restrictive means of furthering a particular interest. See Holt, 135 S.Ct. at 866. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that GDOC's grooming policy is inconsistent and underinclusive.

         1. Dangerousness of ...


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