‘Sheridan inmates denied religious rights’

A lawsuit filed by the public defenders said asylum-seekers at Sheridan were denied religious items and often went hungry because they were served proscribed food


Ritu Jha


It has been over two months since Sikh and a Hindu asylum seeker who was incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center in Sheridan, Oregon were deprived of their religious rights, according to Oregon public defender Lisa Hay.


Hay filed lawsuits July 26 on behalf of over 74 detainees saying they are being held without the required religious accommodations, these including a refusal to be allowed to wear the required head coverings and other religious items and denied the time or space to pray.


William Teesdale, the chief investigator for the Public Defender’s Office (PDO), reported through a declaration that a federal public defender’s office team met the detainees on July 6, 11, 16 and 23 and 25. The team alleged that FDC Sheridan has betrayed the ideals and protections basic to American freedom and which motivated many of the detainees to seek asylum in this country.


Teesdale also wrote in a declaration that many South Asian immigrant detainees had to go hungry because their religion-mandated dietary restrictions were not accommodated. They were provided a meat-based diet which they could not eat.


In the lawsuit, Hay said this was a violation of their rights to not offer them religious accommodation and asked that they be provided religious items, including turbans, and personal religious items of the types seized at the time the detainees entered custody. She also sought that they be allowed visits and religious services from clergypersons and representatives of the detainees’ faiths, be given access to religious writings in appropriate languages according to the detainees’ faiths and be provided appropriate locations for prayer and religious practices while being given the opportunities to observe their religious dietary practices in a culturally appropriate manner.


Dr Simran Jeet Singh, an expert on the Sikh faith who is offering support to Hay, said that while Sikhs practice their faith in many different ways, the basic tenants of Sikhism emphasize the wearing of turbans and other sacred religious objects, and the ability to pray at certain times of day in a respectful space.


The lawsuit states that some detainees have been traumatized by being exposed without headgear when, dating back centuries, “forcibly removing a Sikh’s turban, or cutting a Sikh’s hair has symbolized denying that person the right to belong to the Sikh faith, and has been considered a humiliating and hurtful physical injury.”


While the custodians claim they lack the resources to accommodate religion, no such excuse is permissible under RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) and RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act), the lawsuit argued, adding that the government could not create a chaotic situation, then force the detainees to subsidize governmental actions by sacrificing their religious freedoms.


The punitive detention of immigrants in FDC Sheridan has betrayed ideals and protections that are basic to American freedom and that motivated many of the detainees to seek asylum in this country, it stated.


It added that for the first weeks after their arrival on May 31, 2018, the detainees were held out of touch with anyone in the outside world, under onerous conditions of confinement, without compliance with laws requiring religious accommodations. Many were unable to communicate with anyone in authority in their native languages.


The suit claimed the custodians also failed to advise detainees of what rights they had, how to seek religious accommodations, and what accommodations could be made.


It admitted that some punitive conditions have been ameliorated but pointed out that the inability to fully practice their religions has left the detainees deeply distressed.


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