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NC correctional officer alleges anti-black, anti-Muslim bias over his beard

Keith Hyman, a North Carolina correctional officer at Polk Correctional Institute, is suing the state for religious and racial discrimination after the prison threatened to fire him for requesting a religious accommodation to keep his beard.
Keith Hyman, a North Carolina correctional officer at Polk Correctional Institute, is suing the state for religious and racial discrimination after the prison threatened to fire him for requesting a religious accommodation to keep his beard. Photo provided by the Council on American-Islamic Relations

A Muslim correctional officer in North Carolina is suing the state, saying he was discriminated against due to his race and religion after he was told he must shave his long beard.

Keith Hyman, a black Muslim who works works at Polk Correctional Institute north of Durham, also says a supervisor called him a racial slur.

In state and federal discrimination complaints Hyman filed Monday, he says he's being targeted for retribution over his race, religion and gender. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, is representing Hyman.

"NCDPS engaged in racist, bigoted action and has set up Mr. Hyman to be fired for simply requesting a religious accommodation,” CAIR attorney Ahmed Mohamed said in a news release.

A Department of Public Safety spokesman said the department was aware of the allegations but couldn't comment further: "The Department will cooperate fully with the EEOC but cannot comment due to the pending investigation."

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Like many devout Muslims, Hyman grew out his beard. And while many law enforcement-type jobs require their employees to be clean-shaven, the state's prison system allows for short beards of half an inch or less. Hyman says he was originally granted an exception to be able to grow his beard out to about 2 or 3 inches.

Hyman requested a religious accommodation to keep his beard a few days before Sept. 11, 2017, the date he began working at the maximum-security prison, the complaint says. Polk never responded to Hyman's request. He continued to show up to work with his 2-inch beard for eight months with no problems, understanding the Department of Public Safety's silence as approval of his request, according to the complaint.

When the state hired a new superintendent for Polk in February, Hyman says in the complaint, he sent in the request form again. With no explanation, his request was denied.

Hyman said he was then told he could face disciplinary action if he showed up to work with a beard, so he took a day off to think about his options. When he went back in, he still had his beard and his new boss had a prison lieutenant start to investigate him.

Hyman says the investigator told him specifically that he was being denied because of his religious faith.

He says he was told "that if he had not asked for the religious accommodation that he could have simply kept his beard without any issues" and that he would be written up "until they fired him for insubordination."

The lawsuit alleges the investigator called him "a street n**** that just turned Muslim."

The investigator was not identified in the complaint.

Hyman's complaint goes on to allege that at least one other co-worker at the prison has a beard and has not been been forced to shave it.

"Polk is selectively enforcing its Facial Hair Grooming Policy to target Mr. Hyman because of his faith," the complaint says. "Specifically, Mr. Hyman is aware of at least another Polk employee with a beard at least if not longer than his. The other Polk employee is not being forced to shave."

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