CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A prisoner in New Hampshire is suing the state after he was placed in secure housing and initially denied parole for failing to shave his thick, bushy beard in violation of prison rules.
Corrections officials and lawyers for the state said Frank Staples, 35, was placed in the state prison's Special Housing Unit — where death row is located and inmates are locked down 23 hours a day — for his safety and because of security concerns. They maintain his beard could be used to hide drugs or weapons and makes him a target of harassment and beatings by other prisoners who are required to shave.
Staples sued, saying he keeps the beard because of his Taoist beliefs and it is protected by his religious freedoms. He was convicted of jumping bail on drug charges in 2011. When he was arrested, Nashua police said he was a convicted felon in possession of a gun, and in 2006, the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld an earlier conviction for being a felon in possession of a weapon.
In July, U.S. District Judge Landya McCafferty ordered prison officials to assign Staples a lower security classification and to transfer him to a less restrictive housing unit pending the outcome of his religious rights lawsuit. She adopted most of the recommendations made by a federal magistrate in May.
Staples was denied parole last year on the grounds that his placement in SHU indicated he was a risk. When he was granted parole in June, the board cited the court opinions. He remains in the SHU pending approval of his community placement plan.
Lawyers for the prison and parole board are asking the judge to postpone the effective date of McCafferty's order, citing ongoing security concerns if Staples is released to less restrictive housing. They want to present evidence on why the less restrictive Close Custody Unit doesn't alleviate safety and contraband concerns.
Prison policy allows beards up to a quarter inch long and makes no exceptions for religious beliefs. Inmates in the SHU may grow beards but must shave them at the time of their transfer to a lower security unit.
In court papers, Staples' beard is described as coarse and full-length, and prison officials say it's thick enough to hide a razor blade, pen or drugs such as Suboxone, which can be produced as a thin, wafer-like strip.
"It is undisputed that Staples's beard could conceal these types of items," McCafferty wrote, noting the federal magistrate judge saw Staples stick a pen through his beard and keep it there for a few moments while he moved his head.
SHU rules prevent interviews with prisoners in the unit. Staples is representing himself so there is no lawyer to comment on his behalf.
McCafferty has scheduled an expedited trial on his religious freedom claims under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 8.