Arizona prison guards restrained a 64-year-old Sikh man and forcibly shaved off his beard — in violation of his religious beliefs, a federal complaint filed Monday said.
Attorneys for Surjit Singh are calling for a probe into the Aug. 25, 2020 incident by the US Department of Justice for what they call “egregious religious-freedom violations.”
“At one point, Mr. Singh became distraught and implored the medical staff member to ‘cut my throat, but don’t cut my beard!’” attorneys for Singh wrote in a complaint on his behalf to the DOJ’s Division of Civil Liberties.
The Sikh Coalition said in a Monday news release that it was looking to enact policy changes at the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) to prevent further religious-freedom violations.
“All people, including those who are currently serving sentences in the criminal justice system, have a constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of their religion,” Cindy Nesbit, an attorney with the coalition, said in a statement.
“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,” she added.
Singh, who is serving a five-year prison sentence in a Tucson prison, had his religiously-mandated turban taken from him as part of his prison-intake process last year, according to the complaint.
Prison guards later handcuffed him and shaved off his beard over a period of several hours to prepare him for his prison ID photo, the complaint alleges. This despite Singh repeatedly protesting.
“Prior to this egregious incident, Mr. Singh had never before cut, shaved, trimmed, or otherwise removed his hair,” the complaint stated.
“The incident caused him deep shame and mental trauma, including severe depression.”
He was threatened with a forced shaving again in October until an attorney intervened on his behalf, according to the complaint.
Singh was born in India and is a native Punjabi speaker with limited English proficiency. Lawyers said he hadn’t been provided adequate translation services or documents in Punjabi, preventing him from making even basic requests.
“For example, Mr. Singh did not know that he needed to make a special request to wear a turban or to receive a vegetarian diet in accordance with his sincerely held religious beliefs, and he did not understand how to properly file a grievance,” it said.
The corrections department said in a statement to The Associated Press that it has resolved the issues and expressed regret for the incident.
“There was no ill will, merely a miscommunication, for which the department apologized in writing, twice,” the agency said in a statement.
Singh was convicted of reckless manslaughter after a 2017 accident that killed someone, the AP reported. Prosecutors had said Singh drove a tractor trailer through a stop sign.
With Post wires