Civil rights organizations have called on the Department of Justice to investigate the forceful shaving of the beard of a Sikh man in an Arizona prison.
Shaving and cutting one’s hair are proscribed in Sikhism.
The complaint was filed on behalf of Surjit Singh on May 24 by The Sikh Coalition, in partnership with ACLU-Arizona and WilmerHale LLC, against the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.
According to the complaint, Singh, 64, an observant Sikh, is incarcerated at the Whetstone Unit in Tucson, which is operated by the ADCRR.
The complaint says Singh’s religious-freedom rights were infringed last year when ADCRR officials forcibly shaved his religiously mandated beard.
The incident caused him deep shame and mental trauma, including severe depression, the complaint says. He was forced to shave his facial hair not just once but twice when it grew out beyond the one inch allowed by ADCRR policy.
He has also been denied access to interpretation and other language assistance services even though he is a native Punjabi speaker with very limited English proficiency, the complaint says.
According to the complaint, his incarceration started on August 21 last year, for five years. On learning he has to shave his beard, he becomes distraught and implored the medical staff member to “cut my throat, but don’t cut my beard” — according to the complaint — but officers handcuffed and surrounded Singh, who began to cry and moved his head to avoid having his beard cut and shaved.
Despite his consistent verbal complaints, objections, and clear signs of distress, his beard was forcibly removed by Alhambra corrections officers, the complaint says.
Contacted for comment, Judy Keane, a spokesperson with the ADCRR, told indica News that the department had apologized.
“The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry addressed and resolved these issues over six months ago,” Keane said.
“In November 2020, the Department sent two sincere letters of apology to the legal director of the Sikh Coalition in New York, expressing regret for inmate Singh’s unpleasant experience upon admission to the Phoenix Prison, which arose from an innocent, but unfortunate, miscommunication between a chaplain and security staff,” Keane said.
“There was no ill will, merely a miscommunication, for which the Department apologized in writing, twice. Inmate Singh was subsequently transferred to the Tucson Prison, where he now enjoys the unrestricted religious freedom to grow his hair and beard and wear a turban throughout the remainder of his five-year incarceration for manslaughter.”
Cindy Nesbit, senior staff attorney with the Sikh Coalition, told indica News that making sure that the Sikh articles of faith are well understood was “critical to ensuring that Sikh Americans — and others — can practice their faith in all walks of life.
“We also believe,” Nesbit added, “that the ADCRR should put in place a religious accommodations policy to ensure that what happened to Mr Singh never happens to any other person who maintains religiously mandated hair.”
The complaint filed states that thanks to the advancement in technology, computer programs can easily provide the ADCRR with a clean-shaven computer-generated image of prisoners like Singh, whose religious beliefs and medical conditions prevent them from shaving.
“My faith remains deeply important to me, and incarcerated individuals have a right to our faith just like everyone else in this country,” Singh said in a statement through his legal representatives.
“I am simply asking that the Arizona Department of Corrections guarantee that me and others in my position are able to serve our sentences with dignity by respecting our religious beliefs.”
Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney with ACLU-Arizona, said through a press note that the law provides “heightened protections for incarcerated individuals’ religious exercise precisely because they are especially vulnerable to unfair restrictions on religious practice.”
The ADCRR, Keenan added, “has gotten away with flouting the law for too long: The DOJ must step in to protect Arizona prisoners’ religious-freedom rights.”