- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Native American inmates in Alabama prisons won a round Monday in their legal battle to wear long hair.

The U.S. Supreme Court vacated a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had upheld the Alabama prison system’s policy against long hair. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 11th Circuit and told the appeals court to reconsider the case in light of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling last week. That ruling said a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas can grow a short beard for religious reasons.

Native American inmates say long hair is part of their religious practices. The Alabama Department of Corrections argues that long hair poses risks to security, discipline and hygiene and makes it easier for an inmate to change his appearance after an escape. The department requires hair to be off the neck and ears.

In 2013, the 11th Circuit upheld Alabama’s policy. It noted that while many prison systems had abandoned policies against long hair, their decisions were not controlling on Alabama.

Native American inmates then turned to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their attorney, Mark Sabel of Montgomery, said the inmates have renewed hope because the Supreme Court reaffirmed religious rights.

“The Supreme Court has highlighted a fundamental American principle that government must respect religious freedom and that prisons are not faith-free zones,” Sabel said.

Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton said the department had expected the Supreme Court action since the court had ruled last week in the Arkansas case.

“Until the 11th Circuit has a hearing and offers a ruling, ADOC will continue to enforce its current policy,” Horton said.

In court documents, prison officials said there are 195 Native Americans among Alabama’s 26,000 inmates.

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