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Legal Coalition Seeks DOJ Investigation Of Religious Freedom Violations In Arizona Prisons

A coalition of legal advocacy groups has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice seeking an investigation into allegations that the Arizona Department of Corrections is violating the religious rights of incarcerated people.

Surjit Singh, currently incarcerated in Tucson, alleges prison officials removed his turban and shaved his beard, which he wears in observance of the Sikh religion, during the intake process in 2020.

Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney Cindy Nesbit says Singh was subsequently prevented from growing a beard back.

"Many Sikhs don't cut or trim their hair in any way," Nesbit said. "So once his facial hair started to grow out again, they threatened to shave him a second time."

Attorneys for Singh were able to secure him a religious exemption. But Nesbit says DOJ should investigate the case and work with the Corrections Department to change its policies, "So that no other individual who’s incarcerated is subjected to these rules and then forced to compromise their faith.”

Department of Corrections spokesperson Judy Keane said they have apologized to the Sikh Coalition, blaming the incident on a miscommunication between a chaplain and security staff. But attorneys for Singh said chaplains they interviewed had no purview over facial hair.

The complaint comes on the heels of other recent religious freedom violations alleged by people in state prisons. Jewish inmates sued the Department of Corrections in January over  a change in the kosher meal program.

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.