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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Florida Jail Refuses to Budge on Discriminatory Prison Policy

The fight for Sikh prisoner Jagmohan Singh Ahuja's right to keep his kesh (unshorn hair) in prison continues after Duval County Jail (Duval is a county in Florida, USA)officials refused to change discriminatory prison policies to accommodate a Sikh’s religious beliefs within the Jail. It is against Sikh religious practice to cut one’s hair, as kesh (unshorn hair) covered by a dastaar (Sikh turban) is one of five articles of faith which a Sikh must keep at all times. UNITED SIKHS, co-sponsoring organizations, and concerned lawyers have been actively advocating for Jagmohan's religious rights, contacting and writing Governor of Florida Charlie Crist, Mayor John Peyton of Jacksonville/Duval County, Florida State Representatives, the Duval County Sheriff's Department (in charge of the jail), and various federal, state, and local governmental officials.

Even though the Federal Bureau of Prisons and other states accommodate kesh (unshorn hair) covered by a dastaar (Sikh turban), Duval County Jail and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office have taken strong positions against accommodation. Commenting on the possibility of accommodation, Lauri-Ellen Smith, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office stated, "we cannot do so if the religious practices compromise the security and safety of the correctional facilities. 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."

Assistant Chief Redman of Duval County Jail declared the Jail's position stating, "We're well within our rights to cut his hair, and we will continue to do so." Officials did not comment as to why it was possible to accommodate kesh and dastaar in Federal prisons and several other state jails but not in Florida.

Commenting on the jail's position UNITED SIKHS Staff Attorney Jaspreet Singh stated, "we are very concerned that Jagmohan's hair will be cut again in the near future. It is deeply disturbing that the jail would refuse to make any accommodation where examples exist in other ostensibly more secure prisons. The poignant irony of Jagmohan's escape from religious persecution in Afghanistan to now facing it in America should strike a deep chord in any citizen concerned with protecting religious freedom in America." Arvind Singh, a Florida attorney and member of UNITED SIKHS' legal team added, "We [Sikh Americans] are very concerned with the state of our union when a person's inalienable rights are not protected as our founding fathers directed."

UNITED SIKHS is working aggressively on a possible in court solution as well, but the current law on the issue is not favorable to Jagmohan's position and it will be a difficult legal battle. Our legal team is working with various partner organizations and attorneys to research and overcome these legal hurdles, and have been in regular discussion with the Glenn Katon of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida who has been actively researching and assessing the problematic legal issues in the case. Katon describes the case as one that presents serious difficulties, but states that he is "not convinced that this is un-winnable." Katon further expressed that, "the ACLU is very concerned about this important issue and would like to be on the forefront of changing Florida's discriminatory policy."

Following are some pictures of demonstration that Sikhs from far away places took part in. A bus full of Sikhs came from Miami, some drove in cars from Orlando, Gainesville, Atlanta,GA. There are only about 5 or 6 Sikh families who are resident of Duval county. Give or take, we had about 100 people at the demonstration.