In his more than 60 years, Surjit Singh never once cut, trimmed or shaved his hair or his beard.
As a Sikh, Singh believes his hair — also known as kesh — to be a divine gift. Keeping it unshorn and tied up in a turban is a key tenet of his religion.
But when he entered Arizona detention facilities last year, the 64-year-old Indian immigrant was stripped of his turban and had his beard forcibly shaved by corrections officers as they sought to take his photo for the intake process, several legal advocacy groups allege in a recent complaint.
Singh endured “deep shame and mental trauma,” at one point telling a medical staff member, “Cut my throat, but don’t cut my beard!”, according to the complaint.
“We understood that that Mr. Singh’s hair was of the utmost importance to him,” said Cindy Nesbit, senior staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition. “And this was a clear violation of his religious liberty rights.”
Singh, who speaks Punjabi and has limited English proficiency, was denied proper access to interpreters and language assistance, the complaint also alleges.
Arizona prisons prohibit beards in intake photos
The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry requires that incarcerated individuals shave any facial hair before having their photo taken during the intake process, and otherwise only permits beards up to one inch in length.
Singh, who was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter after a fatal vehicle accident in 2017, had his turban confiscated at a detention center in Yuma, Arizona, last August despite communicating to an interpreter that it was a part of his faith, according to the complaint.
Days later, Singh was transferred to the Alhambra Reception center in Phoenix, where he tried to inform corrections officers that he could not shave his beard for the identification photo because it violated his religion, the complaint said.
When officers continued to insist that he would have to shave, Singh, a native Punjabi speaker with limited English proficiency, asked for an interpreter, the complaint said. Singh “was not provided with a certified Punjabi interpreter,” the complaint says, but a staff member who spoke Hindi was ultimately able to communicate to prison officials that removing his facial hair went against his Sikh faith.
Singh’s request was not honored, Nesbit said.
Despite his repeated objections, the complaint said, corrections officers “handcuffed, physically restrained, and — over a period of hours — forcibly shaved his beard.”
Advocates want the department to change its policies
After pressure from legal groups — which include the Sikh Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, among others — the corrections department granted Singh a religious accommodation, allowing him to wear his turban and grow his beard.
But Singh’s counsel is urging the US Department of Justice to investigate the state’s prison system, arguing that the pathway for seeking a religious accommodation is unclear and that the Arizona Department of Corrections’ policies don’t specify that such exceptions exist. The counsel also asks for the adoption of “clear processes for prisoners to request and obtain interpretive services in their native language.”
Their concern, Nesbit said, is that other individuals who maintain facial hair as part of their faith could be subject to similar violations of their religious liberties in the future.
“It’s a problem that is much larger than just Mr. Singh’s case,” she added.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the complaint.
Judy Keane, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry, characterized the incident as a misunderstanding and said in a statement that the issues had been resolved months ago.
“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 wrote.
The statement continued, “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.”
The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry did not elaborate on its process for requesting religious accommodations.