Incarceration & Religious Freedom: A Sikh Story from Behind Bars

A few years ago I was putting up some flyers on street poles and bulletin boards in Williamsburg, Brooklyn promoting an upcoming concert for my band.  If you’re from New York City, you know Williamsburg is a neighborhood covered with concert flyers and band logos, and the home of dozens of music venues filled with indie rock-loving, skinny jeans-wearing hipsters (for the record, this has nothing to do with me nor my old band).

After a few minutes of putting up a bunch of  flyers with tape, I was suddenly surrounded by 4 police cars and their flashing sirens.  One of the cops approached me, while the others stayed close behind.  He had one of our flyers in his hand and asked if I put it up.  I said yes.  He informed me this was “graffiti” and was illegal.  I apologized and said I was not aware of that.  He took my ID, talked to his colleagues, and the next thing I know I’m being aggressively handcuffed and put into the back of a police car without any explanation.

To make a long story short, I was arrested because a few years prior to the flyering incident, I got stopped and cited for riding my bicycle for a few feet on a sidewalk (in the rain) and never appeared in court for this egregious violation of the law and disturbance to the peace.

But this isn’t a story about why I got arrested and how ludicrous it is that these cops arrested me rather than asking me to please not put up flyers on street poles (which were already covered with flyers).  This isn’t a story about racial or religious profiling and about if these (white) cops were driven by bias or if they were paying special attention to a turbaned, bearded brown man walking down a gentrified, newly predominantly white hipster block of Brooklyn.

This is a story about incarceration.

When I was taken to the precinct, still not knowing why I was arrested or what the hell was going on, I was aggressively and invasively patted down (more like groped) and searched by the officer who arrested me.  After a few conversations with other officers at the precinct, I started putting the pieces together in my head as to why I was arrested, and they assured me that I’d be out of there in a few hours.  I felt a bit relieved, though still anxious.  I was hopeful that I could keep my head up and make it through this with my self-respect and dignity in tact.

I was locked into a small holding cell in the 92nd precinct in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  After a few minutes, the same cop who arrested me informed me that I would have to take off my “headgear.”  I refused, explaining its religious significance.  He insisted that I must take it off.  I refused still.  He went out to talk to his sergant or captain and came back to inform me that I must take off my headgear because it is for my own safety.  Because perhaps I might hang myself with it.

I was wearing a patka, which for those who don’t know is a small turban, not much larger than a bandana.  But that’s besides the point.

We argued for about 20 minutes about this issue, the officer continually going back and forth between me and his boss outside.  I was livid.  I was losing my patience.  He continued to insist I must take it off, and finally told me either I take it off myself or he’s taking it off me.

Knowing that I would lose it completely if this man put his hands on my head and removed my patka, I finally took it off myself.  As soon as he walked out of the room, I lost it completely.  My spirit was crushed, my self-respect shattered.  I felt defeated.  I felt vulnerable.  I felt alone.  I curled up on that hard cement bench behind those bars and I broke down.

I was reminded of a year or so prior when my turban was pulled off by a stranger while I was riding the subway.  Even though I technically took it off myself this time, the removal of my patka was again nonconsensual.  The emotional impact on me was remarkably similar.  Except this time, it wasn’t some ignorant kid on the subway doing it — it was a man in a position of power, payed by my tax dollars (to supposedly keep me safe), a man with a gun, a man with the backing of the state.  The state was infringing directly on my religious freedom — on my basic human right to practice Sikhi.

And it’s obviously not just me.  Some of you might remember the horrific case of Sikh inmate Jagmohan Singh’s kesh being forcibly cut in a Florida prison a few years ago.  Or human rights lawyer Harpreet Singh Cheema only being allowed to wear his dastar in bed while in a California prison awaiting a decision on his asylum case.  I’m no legal expert, but the status quo certainly appears to be that Sikhs are not able to practice their faith in most prisons across the country (check out this TLH post from 2008). Sikhs in India have even had to fight for their right to practice their faith in prisons (I probably shouldn’t be surprised).  In fact, Ghadar Party leader Sohan Singh Bhakna, who Navdeep wrote about yesterday, went on hunger strike in 1921 in Yervada prison in protest of Sikh inmates not being allowed to wear their turbans or kacheras.

There is some recent good news though.  There was a recent ruling in California that inmates will be allowed to maintain unshorn beards in accordance to their faith. According to the Sikh Coalition, “the change is a result of the settlement of a lawsuit that the Sikh Coalition filed against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on behalf of Mr. Sukhjinder Singh Basra, a Sikh inmate.  Mr. Basra, an otherwise model inmate, suffered repeated disciplinary sanctions for keeping his religiously-mandated beard uncut.”

Over 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States (the vast majority nonviolent offenders), by far the largest number of any country in the world. Despite important victories like the recent one in California, we are still up against a massive, profit-driven system of incarceration that puts people (mostly of color) in cages in ever-increasing numbers with the ultimate goal of duhumanization.  I was locked up for a mere 16 hours, and almost lost my mind in that time.  I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without being escorted (and would be ignored for up to an hour when I was trying to go).  I can’t fathom how literally millions of people in this country spend months, years, and lifetimes in conditions much worse than I experienced in a precinct holding cell.  (See this study on the psychological impact of incarceration).

I’ve raised questions about the so-called justice system in this country previously, and hope as a community we can continue conversing about what a Sikh approach to justice should and could look like.  I hope we can agree that all people, no matter what they have done, should be treated like human beings and be allowed, and perhaps encouraged, to pursue a spiritual path and practice their faith.  All people, no matter what they have done, should have the opportunity to rehabilitate, learn, and grow.

Legendary activist and writer Angela Davis, who I had the privilege of seeing speak in New York City recently, wrote a book a few years ago entitled Are Prisons Obsolete? In it she states:

Positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment–demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.

The creation of new institutions that lay claim to the space now occupied by the prison can eventually start to crowd out the prison so that it would inhabit increasingly smaller areas of our social and psychic landscape. Schools can therefore be seen as the most powerful alternative to jails and prisons.

We might not know exactly what a world without  the dehumanization of incarceration would look like, but I think it is certainly worth imagining.




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18 Responses to “Incarceration & Religious Freedom: A Sikh Story from Behind Bars”

  1. Blighty Singh says:

    You know things like this scare me about America. I think I've watched too many cops reality shows. I get the impression its all too easy to get yourself locked up in America….the land of the free? Here in England, where the police only police with the public's consent, you'd pretty much have to murder someone or drink drive before you are arrested. The slap on the wrist, verbal warning method is used far more than arrest. The American way though, has always been a complete mystery to me. As a kid I used to watch alot of American cop shows. I used to sit there scratching my head. the police captain always used to say "you've got 24 hours to solve this…….I've got the D.A on my back" . "Why?"….I used to say to shout at the tv. "Why only give him 24 hours. A serious crime has been committed. You should tell him to take his time and make sure he does a thorough investigation". And what the hell was a 'd.a' ? I used to think it was some kind of vicious animal that jumps on the backs of police captains. As a kid I vowed that I would go to America one day, rob a bank, and then hide in a dumpster with a stopwatch. After 24 hours had passed I would come out of the dumpster knowing that the law couldn't touch me at all now… that the 24 hours were up. Anyway…I digress…..sorry to hear about your experience in the american penal system and its ad to hear about the many other experiences of others. You and they may want to consider moving to England where the filth don't carry guns……but carry little note books instead which, if forced to, they will use… way of taking down your name and address.

  2. Fantastic post, Brooklynwala. I'm glad you've come over to the dark side of the personal narrative =)

    The cases I've heard about in the press have been ones where the Sikh prisoner is usually made out to be unjustly incarcerated, or a “model prisoner.” Or they were victims of racial profiling and the treatment from start to finish was unjust.

    But I believe this issue extends beyond that. What about those Sikhs who have willfully committed a crime? If a turbaned Sikh man is in jail for murder, drug peddling, or rape, should they be allowed to fight for their right to maintain their Sikh appearance? Is this even something we want the State to decide? All prisoners, regardless of what their circumstances are (innocent, falsely accused, guilty as sin) should be afforded their basic human rights.

    In the scenario you described above, the police officer didn’t seem like he was being racist or belligerent about forcing you to remove your “headgear.” He sounded like he was pretty clueless and didn’t see the difference between a hat and a turban. Neither did his "boss." That, I think, is a much more frightening situation.

    I interviewed Montreal based rapper, Sikh Knowledge, a few years ago, and he told me of an equally chilling scenario that didn’t even involve a jail cell. He had gone to fight a parking ticket and was asked by a judge to remove his “hat” before addressing the court!

  3. kantay says:

    Just one counterpoint, I saw a police officer apprehend a teen for shoplifting and the teen would not submit to the arrest even though it was clear as daylight what had happened, There were a few people in the store watching, and it was pretty scary because the teen was taller and younger and was actively resisting. The only guy who was responsible for bringing this person in was the officer, by way of his coming in to work that day.

    You can see another side to this is, it is never going to be a good idea to challenge the authority of a police officer is an open and defiant way because the first and best line of defense for a working police officer is respect for the job he is doing. Without that, every encounter a police officer has with anyone is potentially fraught with serious conflict.

    Not to excuse in anyway police excess, but there are many kinds of ways of interacting with police, and someone who may already hold an antagonistic view of police may find themselves more often in power struggles. This is probably the worst decision someone could make if they want to resolve the conflict.

  4. kantay says:

    by another side to this I don't mean this particular incident, but the issue more generally. your experience was sobering and I am sorry it happened.

  5. Rajinder Singh says:

    How was food ?

  6. Preeti Kaur says:

    This post is kinda convoluted. It is terrible that you had to remove your patka/pag but the policemen were doing their job when they arrested you even though you throw the racist charge on both counts. Because a) riding a bike on a SIDEWALK is illegal whether you are white or black or pink or blue or brown esp in Manhattan and I'm glad the police gave you a ticket in spite of your emotional argument (but officer it was raining wah wah). If you drove a car on the sidewalk because there was a huge mudhole on the road you should still get a ticket because its illegal.

    Then you DON'T SHOW UP FOR YOUR COURT APPEARANCE. In what world is this not just cause for you to be questioned and taken in? And b) The police don't just arrest people without telling you the reason. Unless you are claiming they didn't read you your miranda rights because you are sikh. I don't buy it. Just because there are flyers on a wall doesnt mean you can just stick your own flyers. You need a permit or permission or did they just make up the vandalism charge? I know people who have gotten tickets in manhattan who are white (gasp!) maybe the black cop who gave the ticket was racist and we should provide rehabilitation for people who break laws instead of citing them and giving them a ticket.

  7. Mohinder Singh says:

    Boo Hoo,don't do the crime if u can't do the time.

  8. Slackersingh says:


    People getting thrown into prison for petty charges like drug possession is a total travesty. There's no denying that. This is a total miscarriage of justice on the governments part. I do sympathize with this demographic. Other criminals, not so much.

    With regards to the psychology issue, I don't know. Part of me thinks that no matter what you do, some bleeding hearts will always attest to some form of psychological torture happening. You don't want to the prisoner kept in isolation because it's a form of torture? Usually that is only reserved for the most hardened criminals who already HAVE behavioral problems despite repeated warnings. So basically those people who are kept in SEVERE isolation (ie. 23 hours a day) are those people who CAN'T be near the general population. Even then they can talk to the guards. I know it's not much, but given the circumstances, what else would you propose? You seem to be implying that a lot of prisons don't have rehabilitation programs implemented. Rehab/group counseling is already par for the course in many prisons. So I think many advances have been made in terms of addressing psychosocial issues. Does it still leave something to be desired? Yes. But at least it's something that is being worked on. Beyond that, if a prisoner is going to cry about being told what to do and when to do it, that is the price you pay for committing the crime. Deal with it. And yes, you will always get the overzealous prison guard who abuses his power, but you see that in ANY position of authority. Heck, in your case it made what was an already situation even crappier. Still, if I had it my way, I'd much rather set up chain gangs and have them cracking rocks along the highway in the sweltering heat.

    As for the death penalty, I personally am favour of it in principle. Heck, I'd be glad to even offer to string up a few convicts myself (ie. the recent case where a father, totally mentally competent, smashed his newborn daughters head in with a cinder block since he simply could not afford to raise her). In practice though, it doesn't work. As everyone knows, there is something to be said about how blacks are disproportionately more likely to be placed on death row. Even then, so much money is wasted on appeals with most convicts dying ON death row before even being executed. Moreover, the concept of even ONE innocent person being executed would not sit well with me. As such, I'd rather not take the chance.

  9. Citizen Singh says:

    I am sorry to hear about your treatment by the police – I am glad you managed to keep your cool despite all this. Otherwise the outcome would have been far worse.

    Stuff like this makes me think I will NEVER visit the USA…

  10. Harinder Singh says:

    As a representative of the Sikhs (thanks to Rajdeep Singh Jolly of TSC for connecting), I was at the Capitol Hill and the White House yesterday lobbying for the passage of National Criminal Justice Commission Act as a Fatih in Action Justice Roundtable event. Guru Nanak Sahib confronted mass incarcerations & Guru Hargobind Sahib championed prisoner's rights during the Mughal imperialism. After the Monday morning quarter-backing is done, the question remains: are the Sikhs going to follow founder-Gurus? More at #NCJCA. We are in the age of "crypto-imperialism" and prisoners in India and America (for that matter world-wide) are calling us!

  11. […] tragic symptom of a broken and inhumane criminal justice system (which I’ve discussed before here and here).  This is a Sikh issue.  Indeed, Harinder Singh of the Sikh Research institute states, […]

  12. […] How do we stay safe, while maintaining our dignity?  I am reminded of other hard decisions one should never have to make that I previously wrote about.  […]

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  16. Alexander Edinburgh says:

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