‘Egregious’: Sikh immigrant forced to shave beard in US prison, advocacy groups demand probe

Several legal advocacy groups have filed a complaint with the civil rights division of the US department of justice after a Sikh immigrant was forced to shave his beard in an Arizona detention facility. Surjit Singh, a 64-year-old Indian immigrant, was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter after a fatal vehicle accident in Yuma, Arizona.

Last year, Singh was stripped of his turban when he entered Yuma county jail and had his beard forcibly shaved by corrections officers after he was transferred to Alhambra Reception Center, operated by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR), the advocacy groups have alleged. Singh believes, in accordance with his Sikh faith, that he must wear a turban and refrain from cutting any of his hair, including facial hair, according to the complaint.

Calling it an “egregious incident”, the advocacy groups said that the incident caused Singh “deep shame and mental trauma, including severe depression” as he had never cut, shaved, trimmed, or otherwise removed his hair. The complaint also alleged continued harassment of the Sikh immigrant over his religious practices, claiming that prison staff at the Douglas facility tried to shave his facial hair a second time because it had grown out beyond the one inch allowed by the ADCRR policy.

There are around 26 million Sikhs worldwide, of which more than 500,000 reside in the US. As per the Sikh code of conduct, called the Rehat Maryada, Sikh men are required to wear external articles of faith, and the most commonly maintained article is unshorn hair (kesh) covered by a turban. However, the ADCRR requires prisoners to shave any facial hair before having their photo taken during the intake process to facilitate a clean picture for the ‘Mug Photo Interface Subsystem’.

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“Mr. Singh’s faith requires him to maintain unshorn facial hair, and the ADCRR’s arbitrary policies should not violate his or anyone else’s religious rights in Arizona,” Cindy Nesbit, Sikh Coalition senior staff attorney, said in a statement.

The complaint has been jointly filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona, the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief (PFRB), the ACLU National Prison Project (NPP), the Sikh Coalition, and WilmerHale LLP, an international law firm.

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