Underwear issues
Dec 10, 2005

Forbidden to wear his underwear, a Sikh prisoner in New York has not been eating for six months

Long underwear called Kacchera is worn by devout Sikhs to reinforce their vow of abstinence. Navdeep Singh, who began serving a five-year sentence at Fishkill Correctional Facilities on Jan 26, says prison officials dumped his underwear in the garbage despite his protestations that it was a sacred item.

He says he also has been denied access to religious items Sikhs are expected to carry with them at all times. These include a thin steel bracelet symbolising bondage to truth, a wooden comb and a Sikh pendant.

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

Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalised Persons Act passed by Congress in 2000, religious liberties of prisoners are guaranteed protection.

“This case shows that legal action is necessary to make sure RLUIPA’s protections are real,” says Milton Zelermeyer, a prison rights lawyer with the New York Legal Aid Society.

The law states that religious freedoms can be curtailed only when there is a compelling state interest in doing so.

“The Department of Corrections still haven’t explained the compelling state interest in restricting Naveep’s rights,” says Tejinder Singh, legal advisor at United Sikhs. On Dec 1, the law firm of O’ Melveny & Myers filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Manhattan on behalf of Navdeep.

“Imagine not having eaten for more than a month, being admitted into a hospital for malnutrition and being on the verge of death’s door all in the fight for his religious rights. This is the story of Navdeep Singh,” says his Attorney Steven Rubin.

The lawsuit alleges that Singh was put in solitary confinement for refusing to cut his hair, and misbehaviour reports were filed against him when he explained how shaving off his beard would be against his religion.

Earlier, United Sikhs tried to negotiate with Fishkill authorities. “We explained to them why these items were important to Singh but they refused to understand. Rather, prison guards physically abused Navdeep after he filed the complaint,” says Manwinder.

The lawsuit implicates about 15 Fishkill prison officials including the acting superintendent of the facility and Commissioner Glenn S Goord of the department of corrections.

Calls to Albany went unanswered.

“They keep saying the items were confiscated because of security concerns, but they haven’t explained how an underwear or a comb can be a security concern,” says Hadayal Singh, Uniteds Sikh director.

The lawsuit draws comparisons between restrictions enforced on Navdeep and the freedoms offered to Native Americans, who are allowed to possess a medicine bag, sacred herbs and a smoking pipe, and Christians who are permitted to wear cross pendants.

Though this is the first such case in New York , in November similar incidents were reported in Solano State Prison and San Quentin State Prison in California . The Sikh Coalition, a non-profit organisation, says two Sikh prisoners were punished for refusing to cut their hair.

Sikhs aren’t the only minorities complaining of discrimination in prisons. A group of Muslim inmates from Rikers Island recently filed a case claiming prison guards mishandled the Holy Quran.

United Sikh says the Sikh community in America has been suffering since the events of 9/11. In July this year, 5 Sikh employees sued the Metropolitan Transport Authority for allegedly making them wear the MTA logo on their turbans.

Manwinder says he 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 as yet.” ayesha akram

Article by Courtesy of http://www.dailytimes.com.pk
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