Sikh immigrant, 64, forced to shave in Arizona prison

A 64-year-old Sikh immigrant who was forced to shave his beard in an Arizona prison has called on the US Justice Department to investigate it as an infringement of religious freedoms.

The complaint said that unless the Justice Department investigates the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) for this “misconduct and takes immediate enforcement action, other ADCRR prisoners will suffer similar violations of their rights.”

Surjit Singh was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter in a case from 2017. He was taken into custody on 21 August 2020 following his sentencing. Singh is currently incarcerated at the Whetstone Unit in Tucson operated by the ADCRR.

The complaint was filed by attorneys with the Sikh Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the ACLU National Prison Project and WilmerHale LLP.

It alleges that on 25 August 2020, the ADCRR officials forcibly shaved his religiously mandated beard without giving him the opportunity to object, even as they were long aware of Singh’s limited English proficiency and the fact that his native language is Punjabi.

According to the complaint, at one point during his ordeal, Singh said “cut my throat, but don’t cut my beard!” But he was eventually handcuffed and his beard was cut.

“ADCRR has failed to provide adequate language assistance, thereby denying him meaningful access to prison programs and services,” the complaint said.

The 11-page complaint said the only language assistance Singh received while being forcibly shaved came “from an ADCRR staff member who spoke Hindi, not Punjabi.”

The complaint said that the ADCRR “never provided Singh with a Punjabi-speaking interpreter; nor has it provided translated versions of vital documents, such as the prisoner handbook, rules, and procedures he is required to follow, or prison forms he must fill out to make requests for religious accommodations and physician appointments.”

As a result, the complaint said, Singh struggled to communicate with prison staff and faced “difficulty in obtaining a turban.”

The lawyers for Singh said that his treatment “has been nothing short of egregious”.

“Forcibly shaving his beard, which he had previously maintained unshorn his entire life, clearly violated his rights under RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act), as did threatening to shave him again after his intake in accordance with the prison’s one-inch beard limitation policy,” it said.

It alleges that the ADCRR’s facial hair policies likely violate the rights of many other prisoners in the agency’s custody whose faith requires them to maintain a beard.

They asked the Justice Department to investigate these policies and their implementation.

“The DOJ should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the ADCRR adopts a clear, easy-to-follow religious accommodation process in connection with its facial hair policies and that these and other key policies and documents are translated for prisoners with limited English proficiency,” it demanded.

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