May 24, 2021 (Tuscon, AZ) — Today, the Sikh Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona, the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief (PFRB), the ACLU National Prison Project (NPP), and the international law firm WilmerHale filed a complaint with the Department of Justice (DOJ) on behalf of Mr. Surjit Singh, who is currently serving a sentence at the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) in Tucson, AZ. 

Upon his incarceration in August of 2020, Mr. Singh’s turban was taken from him and his beard was forcibly shaved to comply with ADCRR rules. Though Mr. Singh cannot communicate in English and was not provided with an interpreter, he did protest both the removal of his turban and his shaving at the time. He then lodged informal verbal and written complaints, and the Sikh Coalition, ACLU PFRB, and ACLU-AZ later filed a formal written grievance on his behalf. 

Following this initial forced shaving, the ADCRR further threatened to shave Mr. Singh again due to their prohibition of inmate beard lengths longer than one inch. We and our allies were able to prevent a second shaving and secure an accommodation so that he will not be shaved in the future in any ADCRR facility. However, the ADCRR remains unwilling to discuss policy changes that would provide accommodations to other prisoners who maintain facial hair for religious reasons. 

“My faith remains deeply important to me, and incarcerated individuals have a right to our faith just like everyone else in this country,” said Mr. Singh, through a statement to 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.”

The complaint asserts that Mr. Singh’s religious freedom was violated by the ADCRR, and it urges the DOJ to examine the ADCRR’s practices to ensure that other incarcerated persons are not subject to similar 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,” said Cindy Nesbit, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney. “Arbitrary policies of the ADCRR must not be allowed to further violate Mr. Singh’s religious rights, or the rights of anyone else.”

The Sikh Coalition is grateful to our partners at the ACLU-AZ, ACLU PFRB, ACLU NPP, and WilmerHale for joining us in this important case. Of note, we have successfully navigated similar cases on behalf of Sikh Americans before, including a 2011 lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and advocacy action in 2006 against the Florida Department of Corrections; local chapters of the ACLU were a valuable partner in both of those instances. 

As always, the Sikh Coalition urges you to practice your faith fearlessly.