Should practicing Sikhs be allowed to pursue their faith while in prison? This debate is occuring not only among Sikhs and non-Sikhs, but also between the federal and state governments.
The United States Department of Justice has filed a legal suit against the State of California for violating the civil rights of Sikh inmate Sukhjinder Singh Basra:
The Justice Department filed a lawsuit today against the state of California, Governor Jerry Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for violating the right of an inmate to practice his religion. The lawsuit follows a Justice Department investigation that revealed that California’s inmate grooming policy substantially burdens the rights of an inmate to practice his Sikh faith.
The US Department of Justice contends that the state of California is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects the religious rights of prisoners and incarcerated individuals. This law was enacted to support the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
“The rights guaranteed by the Constitution extend to all people in the United States,” said Andre Birotte Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. “By protecting those rights — even for those incarcerated — we strengthen those rights for all.”
The federal government’s lawsuit is in support of Sukhjinder Singh’s own case against the State of California Department of Corrections:
Basra, who is serving time at the California Men’s Colony for a drug offense, claims that guards told him he violated a rule prohibiting inmates from growing facial hair longer than a half inch. As punishment Basra said he was ordered to perform extra prison duties, spend 10 days confined to his bunk, and lost 30 days of credit for good behavior.
If the “California Department of Corrections” sounds familiar, you may be recalling another case against them.
On another side of the prison ledger, Trilochan Singh Oberoi is fighting for his right to be employed at a state prison in Folsom, California. Kamala Harris, California’s current Attorney General, is maintaining her predecessor’s (and current Governor, Jerry Brown) defense of the Department of Corrections’ refusal to allow Trilochan Singh to be employed as long as he maintains his turban and beard. This is despite a ruling by the California State Personnel Board that the Department of Corrections is engaging in discriminatory practices.
The violation of the rights of Sikhs and followers of other religions to practice their faith while in prison is an issue that is not without precedent. In 2008, when Jagmohan Singh Ahuja was sent to prison in Florida, he was shaved against his will:
Jagmohan Singh, who maintained his kesh (unshorn hair) and kept it covered with a dastaar (Sikh turban) prior to becoming incarcerated, went through the severely traumatizing process of having his dearest religious tenets violated when jail staff cut his hair on or about July 1, 2008. As he communicated to UNITED SIKHS, he does not recognize himself anymore, and it brings him constant and great grief. After having fled from religious persecution as a Sikh living under the fanatical Taliban in Afghanistan, Jagmohan has faced religious persecution again in the United States of America, the bastion of religious freedom and civil rights.
Prison staff has already alerted Jagmohan Singh that he will have his hair forcibly cut again within the next few days, and Jagmohan has said that this terrifies him. He sincerely hopes and prays that something will be done to stop this religious persecution.
Clearly, state prisons across the country continue to use force or coercion in the attempt to override an inmate’s religious practice. In Virginia, their state prison system engages in a program that rewards Rastafarians for cutting their hair (a practice against their faith) with socialization and other privileges:
Allen McRae, who changed his name to Ras-Solomon Tafari in prison, also chose to return to isolation. He said the program barred inmates from any educational or religious programming, holding a job, receiving personal property like television and some hygiene items, and face-to-face visits with loved ones.That only comes if they cut their hair.”The program is designed in such a way that we can never graduate the program unless we surrender our religious beliefs,” he said.
One may argue that a Sikh – or follower of any other faith – who has committed a crime (especially one that contravenes their faith) and is sent to prison gives up the right to practice his or her religion. However, in my lay opinion, this is a short-sighted view. In many cases, by stripping these prisoners of their faith, prisons seek only to further marginalize these individuals. On the other hand, allowing a prisoner to pursue their faith keeps them engaged with positive influences. It may well be a useful tool to rehabilitate these individuals to facilitate their re-integration into society. Research in this area does seem to point (at least, somewhat) in this direction.
The other issue at hand – one that spawned the US Department of Justice lawsuit – is the violation of constitutional rights of American prisoners, and the leeway we give to federal or state government departments to restrict an individual’s freedom of religion.