With the ACLU and the Sikh Coalition filing a complaint on Monday with the Department of Justice (DOJ) against the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, the question of religious freedom of Sikh convicts has resurfaced.
According to the Sikh Coalition, 64-year-old Surjit Singh is serving a five-year prison term after he pled guilty to reckless manslaughter charges in the wake of a deadly car accident.
In August of 2020, Singh’s turban was confiscated and he was handcuffed while prison officials shaved his beard against his will before they took his booking photo. As an observant Sikh, Singh had never cut his facial hair before going to prison. Singh’s attorney wrote in the complaint that it was a traumatic experience for him and at one point he became so distraught that implored the medical staff member to ‘cut my throat, but don’t cut my beard!’
Singh has limited English proficiency and was even denied access to a Punjabi interpreter making him struggle to communicate with prison staff during the forced shaving encounter.
Beliefs that are “sincerely held” and “religious” are protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Somewhere along the way, America has lost focus on the rehabilitative ideals of its earliest prisons. While never intended to be comfortable, the original ambition of incarceration was not simply to be punitive, but also to be “correctional” — to leave prisoners better off than we found them, for the good of inmates and the country. Early models of correctional practice were more collaborative than prisons of today, combining state resources with philanthropic, religious, and civic assets to better manage offenders. The main goal was to incentivize future good behaviors, not simply punish former bad ones.
This also supports allowing the convicts to follow their religious beliefs and for an observant Sikh, his beard is a mark of his faith.
America was founded on principles of religious freedom. Many people came to this country to flee religious persecution in other countries. As long as a prisoner’s practice of religion does not interfere with prison security, there is simply no reason to deny an inmate’s religious rights.
We had seen similar behavior from prison authorities when immigrants we ruthlessly arrested and put behind bars for seeking asylum. The turbans of the Sikh inmates were taken away forcibly ignoring all their religious rights.
The insensitivity of prison officials towards minority religions is alarming. It is time prison laws are revisited and provisions are made clearer to respect the religious freedom of every human being. Till then, we hope the DOJ will serve justice and lay down the precedent for the prevention of such incidents in the future.
Not competent enough to sit idle and stare as the world goes by, Pallavi is optimistic to a fault and believes in building her world on her own rather than depending on others to make things right.