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US in the News - Sikh News Network


Florida Jail to Force Another Haircut of Sikh Inmate
By: Anju Kaur
Sikh News Network staff journalist
Sept 09 , 2008


North America: Citing security concerns, a Duval County Jail spokeswoman said that a Sikh inmate who endured the forceful cutting of his kesh, religiously mandated unshorn hair, will have another haircut when his hair gets long enough.


“The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is committed to respecting and honoring the religious preferences of all persons… However, we cannot do so if the religious practices compromise the security and safety of the correctional facilities,” said Lauri-Ellen Smith, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, in an official statement by email. “As such, it is required that all sentenced inmates have short hair and not wear head coverings, in order to prevent hiding contraband and/or weapons.”


This jail policy is in direct conflict with Sikh religious practice, which requires men and women to keep uncut hair, and for men to cover it with a dastaar, a Sikh turban.


It became a problem for Jagmohan Singh Ahuja, 36, of Jacksonville, when he was sentenced on June 24 to serve three consecutive sentences, of less than one year each, for misdemeanor offenses.


When he became aware that jail personnel might forcibly cut his hair, he requested his public defender to file a motion with the Duval County Circuit Court, said Jaspreet Singh, staff attorney of United Sikhs, a New York based advocacy group. The motion was denied by Judge Russell Healey.


Singh again protested the cutting of his hair on the day of the incident, around July 1, Singh said. The correctional officers sought higher authorities to make the decision, and ended up calling the circuit court clerk for guidance on the matter. The clerk told them that Florida law allows prisons officials to cut an inmate’s hair, by force if necessary.


“He was given three years to serve for a crime, not three years and religious persecution,” Jaspreet Singh said. It is “criminal” that they cut his hair.


According to court records, Jagmohan Singh was arrested in November 2006 and charged with domestic battery. He pled no contest and was given one-year probation at the Salvation Army and attend classes on preventing domestic abuse. His wife and two minor kids were awarded an injunction to prevent any contact from him for one year.


But during the next year he was convicted of twice violating probation and once violating the injunction. About a week into his sentences, jail officers forcibly cut his hair and beard. On July 15, Jagmohan Singh filed an appeal to the conviction and sentence, court records show.


“We are taking the position that it (the alleged crime) is not important,” Jaspreet Singh said. “The arrest or conviction is irrelevant to the right to practice one’s religion… No one should face this (cutting kesh).”


Jagmohan Singh’s attorney, Anjna Chauhan, said she filed the appeal, but that the hair-cutting problem was beyond the scope of her representation.


“I would have to appeal to the governor and initiate a separate proceeding,” she said. Chauhan instead told Jagmohan Singh to call the Sikh Coalition, another New York based advocacy group. But he never made the call, said Amardeep Singh, executive director of the Sikh Coalition.


None of the Singhs in this report are related. It is a common surname for Sikhs.


A friend or relative initially contacted the Coalition with little information on his whereabouts, Amardeep Singh said. He was difficult to find.


Around the same time, Jagmohan Singh's mother, who lives in England, contacted United Sikhs’ office in London about her son's case. The group found him, but it was too late to stop his first haircut.


“We have confirmed with our lawyers that this practice is in full compliance with federal constitutional and statutory law,” the sheriff’s office said in its statement. “We fully understand that this might be uncomfortable for inmates whose religious practices require longer hair length and/or head coverings; however, the safety of our corrections facilities must take precedence.”


Florida law is not favorable to Jagmohan Singh's position, but there are a couple of federal laws that prohibit undue burden on prisoners’ rights to worship as they please: The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Both require the government to accommodate a prisoner’s religious rights or show justification for the undue hardship.


Still, the security issue is very difficult to overcome, said Glenn Katon, director of Religious Freedom Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, which is considering taking Jagmohan Singh’s case.


“There are quite a few cases (like this one) across the country,” Katon said. “We have fought before and lost, but I am not convinced that this is un-winnable.”


The argument would be that the jail could preserve its security interests without cutting an inmate’s hair, Katon said. And, in the meantime, he would ask the court for an injunction to prevent the jail from cutting Jagmohan Singh’s hair until an outcome. But even that is “hard to do.”


United Sikhs is also approaching Florida’s legal system and legislative systems to prevent another haircut, and to amend current Florida law. A petition was started last week to persuade Florida’s elected officials to take action. Nearly 2,100 people have signed it so far.


After the jail cut his hair, an emotionally strained Jagmohan Singh called his mother in England, Jaspreet Singh said. He told her he had become severely depressed by the incident and that he did not recognize himself in the mirror.

Note: By Anju Kaur
Sikh News Network staff journalist

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