RELIGIOUS RIGHTS IN QUESTION:
PRISONER SUES UPSTATE FACILITY

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New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility is violating a Sikh prisoner’s right to worship, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month. Navdeep Singh, 28, who began serving a five-year sentence last January for assaulting two men in a late-night brawl, is suing the State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). He has also spent the past five months on a hunger strike in order to draw attention to his cause.

Navdeep, who is originally from India but immigrated to Jamaica, Queens in 1977, said prison officials dumped his underwear in the garbage when he arrived, despite his protestations that it was a sacred item. Long underwear called kacchera is worn by devout Sikhs to reinforce their vow of abstinence. He said he has also been denied access to religious items Sikhs are expected to carry with them at all times, including a thin steel bracelet symbolizing bondage to truth, a wooden comb and a Sikh pendant.

“One of the correction officers told me that if I wanted my religious items, I should go back to my country and ride camels,” said Navdeep, seated in the bare visiting room of the prison hospital where he has been admitted due to his rapid weight loss.

A green turban is expertly wound around his head and the bushy beard he refused to cut flows down to his chest. Despite a court order permitting Navdeep to keep his hair, Navdeep said, prison officials threw him into solitary confinement when he refused to shave his beard.

“They said the order only pertains to the hair on my head,” said Navdeep, breaking out into a laugh. “According to them, a beard isn’t considered hair.”

Navdeep, who looks gaunt in his beige hospital gown, has been surviving on milk and Ensure. A few days after his hunger strike began, the kacchera was returned to him and he is now permitted to wear the bracelet during meal times. But he hasn’t seen the pendant for six months.

DOCS could not comment on specific allegations in the case due to the litigation.

“He is only asking for the religious rights which are accorded to him by law,” said Manvinder Singh, director for International Civil and Human Right Advocacy of United Sikhs, an advocacy group.

Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act passed by Congress in 2000, religious freedoms can be curtailed only when there is a “compelling state interest” to do so.

Yet this isn’t the first time a prison has been accused of denying religious freedoms. In November similar incidents were reported in Solano State Prison and San Quentin State Prison in California. The Sikh Coalition, a non-profit organization, says Sikh prisoners in these facilities were punished for refusing to cut their hair.

Before filing Navdeep’s lawsuit, United Sikhs tried to negotiate with Fishkill prison authorities. “We explained to them why these items were important to him, but they refused to understand. Rather, prison guards physically abused Navdeep after he filed the complaint,” says Manvinder.

The lawsuit implicates roughly 15 Fishkill prison officials, including the acting superintendent of the facility and DOCS Commissioner Glenn Goord.

Michael Fraser, spokesperson for DOCS, defended the agency’s record. “We recognize the importance of spiritual and religious practices and have worked hard to provide these services to inmates at our facilities throughout the state,” he says. “However, we must ensure that any program or service provided is done so in a manner that does not undermine safety or security.”

United Sikhs finds the security argument baffling. “They haven’t explained how an underwear, a comb or a bangle can be a security concern,” says Hadayal Singh, director of the group. He points to freedoms offered to Native Americans, who are allowed to possess a medicine bag, sacred herbs, a smoking pipe and Christians who are permitted to wear cross pendants.

Members of United Sikhs say the Sikh community in New York is still suffering fallout from 9/11. In July, five Sikh employees sued the Metropolitan Transport Authority for allegedly making them wear the MTA logo on their turbans. Manvinder is worried that many cases are going unreported. “I am sure there are people caught up in the system who we just don’t know about yet,” he said.

Navdeep says the incident has taught him a lesson. “This is a police state,” he said. “Outside it’s a different world but inside it’s a police state. The correction officers can do whatever they want.”

–Ayesha Akram