Reconciling the Rights of Sikh Prisoners

Over the past ten years, we’ve seen a resurgence of concern over religious accommodation for Sikh prisoners, witnesses, and the accused, in the American courts. prison.jpgFour years ago a Sikh inmate starved himself to death. At the time, there were competing stories and speculation over whether this was out of shame, out of fear of being beaten by guards, or for failure to accommodate religious dietary needs.

Since then, at least two recent stories reopen the situation of Sikhs asked to stand at trial or who are incarcerated. In San Jose, a judge has barred a man accused of murder from entering the court room with his turban on, arguing he could hide a noose or other weapon in it:

A San Joaquin County Superior Court judge says a Sikh man facing trial over the murder of his daughter’s former boyfriend will have to appear before jurors without his turban.Judge Charlotte Orcutt says that the long fabric pious men use to wrap their hair could hide a weapon or be used as a noose. [link]

Aside from the abject stupidity of the rationale for disallowing the turban, I was a little floored to see this rationale upheld in the South Bay Area, where there are more than enough Sikhs (including those who have appeared at trial) for the courts to have developed protocols for this, already. The issue extends beyond California, however, to other federal prisons as well:

An American Vietnam War veteran, who converted to Sikhism 20 years ago, has asked President George W. Bush to intervene in protecting the religious rights of a Sikh prisoner in Florida whose hair were cut by prison authorities. [link]

… Tarney said Jagmohan Singh Ahuja’s hair were forcibly cut by officials of the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Florida. Ahuja is serving a three year sentence for misdemeanour violations.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled pretty decisively on the obligation states and the federal government have in allowing for religious practice and accommodation in 2005. What that means in practice, however, hasn’t really translated. Inmates who protested in the 2005 decision were often from “minority” or “non-mainstream” religions (e.g., white supremacists, Wiccans, practitioners of Native American spiritual backgrounds). So then why do Sikhs continue to operate under misunderstandings regarding the inherent harm or potential threat posed by religious practice? The “othering” factor is obvious and easy, but I would argue that their vulnerability is compounded by a lack of language access, lack of representation, and a tenuous relationship between non-incarcerated and incarcerated Sikh populations.

I would argue this tension to keep incarcerated members of the community at an arm’s length draws resources away from their defense and support. Because Sikhi requires specific actions/behaviors, it’s more common to disavow incarcerated Sikhs as non-members of the greater Sikh community, or to argue that their concerns/issues are based in Punjabi identity without reconciling their desire to maintain religious observance. I think this tension undermines advocacy for religious accommodation. It’s much easier to argue for accommodation for someone “law-abiding” than to go to bat for someone who has been found guilty of any manner of unsavory criminal actions. This doesn’t mean Sikh organizations haven’t extended their advocacy to the incarcerated — they have –, but I often wonder how much more traction they get for defending the rights of Sikh children in public schools over incarcerated Sikhs in state and federal prisons. Compounded with language access concerns among immigrant Punjabi Sikhs, this narrows the possibility for adequate defense/representation from government actors, who don’t necessarily understand the levity of practice.

This also brings up a theological question — do we continue to defend the right to practice for those who have “broken step” with practice of the faith and transgressed commonly accepted boundaries? For example, are we as quick to defend someone charged with child molestation as we would be a political dissident? My assumption is no — we believe the first is a vital transgression of social contracts (and of the faith), whereas the latter issue would be situation-specific. While it may be seen as unfair to continually punish someone, I think it’s easier to rationalize why breaking with the faith in one key respect may engender less defense in other respects.

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3 Responses to “Reconciling the Rights of Sikh Prisoners”

  1. Jake says:

    Inmates should be allowed to practice their religion while Incarcerated. The constitution grants due process and every inmate is entitled to it, regardless of their crime.

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