California mulls statewide standards for religious garb in jails

United States advocacy groups say the ‘common sense’ bill would help protect incarcerated people’s right to religious freedom and expression.

Two formerly incarcerated Muslim men with the Tayba Foundation
Rami Nsour (right), pictured with student Abdul Hafiz Carey Hightower, is the co-founder of the Tayba Foundation, which supports a new bill to create standards for religious headwear in prison [Al Jazeera via Tayba Foundation]

Los Angeles, California, the US – Sajad Shakoor faced a painful choice while incarcerated at California’s Pleasant Valley State Prison in 2002: remove his chitrali cap — a core part of his identity as a Muslim of Pakistani heritage — or end up in a solitary confinement cell known informally as “the hole”.

In order to comply with prison regulations, Shakoor had already made the difficult decision to shave his beard. Other Muslims, many of whom consider growing long beards to be a religious obligation, had refused to do so and been sent to solitary.

For Shakoor, being forced to remove the religious headwear was one step too far.

“It was dehumanising and demeaning shaving my beard,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now they were telling me I couldn’t wear my cap? That’s where I drew the line.”

More than 20 years after the traumatic incident, Shakoor — who spent seven days in a solitary cell about the size of a parking space for refusing to remove his cap — says he hopes a recently introduced bill in the California State Senate will help others avoid similar experiences.

“Imagine going to solitary confinement over a beard or a kufi,” said Shakoor, using a term for another style of cap worn by Muslim men. “They made examples of us.”

‘Common-sense policy’

The proposed legislation, formally known as SB 309, would create uniform standards to govern religious grooming and headwear throughout California’s detention facilities, including those run by private contractors.

The bill would also create guidelines for conducting security searches of individuals wearing religious garments, allowing the search to be conducted in a private area, with individuals offered a garment provided by the facility.

Introduced by State Senator David Cortese this month, the bill has picked up support from faith and civil rights groups such as the California branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Tayba Foundation, a nonprofit that works with families impacted by incarceration.

“It’s a fundamental tenet of many religions to wear certain garments,” Cortese told Al Jazeera. “We believe it’s a matter of civil rights and religious freedom. Right now there’s no uniformity across the state.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the agency tasked with overseeing 34 state-run prison facilities, told Al Jazeera that it does not comment on pending legislation.

But a CDCR spokesperson said in an email that the department recognises an “incarcerated person’s freedom of religion” and has developed a “Religious Personal Property Matrix” (PDF) that covers grooming and headwear in state prisons.

Still, while CDCR oversees the state system, it does not have jurisdiction over county jails, which set their own policies. The result is a patchwork of standards that can change from one facility to another, CAIR-California fellow Leena Sabagh told Al Jazeera.

“CAIR has represented several Muslim women who had their hijabs forcibly removed,” Sabagh said. “In some cases, the lack of guidance has created confusion among guards trying to carry out procedures like a security search.”

Sabagh said that those lawsuits usually end in the county agreeing to implement a clear policy on religious attire and grooming, something she hopes a statewide standard would help fix. “It makes more sense to approach this at a state level, instead of going county by county,” she said.

“Whether you’re a Muslim wearing a hijab, a Sikh wearing a turban, [or] a Jew wearing a yarmulke, these garments are an essential part of a person’s identity,” Sabagh added. “This is a common-sense policy that would benefit people from all different faith groups.”

The bill — introduced earlier this month and currently in the committee on public safety — would need to pass in the State Senate and the State Assembly, then win the signature of California Governor Gavin Newsom, to become law.

Cortese, the California state senator who introduced the bill, said that, at least so far, nobody has voiced opposition to the proposed legislation. He noted that he reached out to law enforcement groups for their insights when crafting the bill.

“Of course you have to balance security concerns,” he said. “We see this as an opportunity to export law enforcement best practices.”

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), a corrections officers’ labour union, did not respond to an email from Al Jazeera requesting comment in time for publication.

But in a statement shared by Cortese’s office on February 6, Antonio Cueva — the vice president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association, a local group — said his organisation “believes in the Constitution of the United States and its provisions which allow for freedom of religion”.

“We stand with our CAIR friends to ensure those freedoms are guaranteed and protected,” Cueva said.

Holding on to faith

Ultimately, supporters of the bill say they hope the legislation will allow more incarcerated people to proudly express their religious beliefs, which can help stave off the hopelessness many face when behind bars.

“If you meet someone who was given a life sentence when they were 17 years old, and has spent more than 20 years imprisoned, how do you make sense of that? How do you make meaning out of your life?” asked Rami Nsour, co-founder of the Tayba Foundation.

“Religion can give people hope, a sense of community and even protection.”

Shakoor was originally given a life sentence under California’s punitive “three strikes” law that meted out harsher sentences for people who had been convicted of numerous crimes. The law has since been reformed, and Shakoor was released in 2013 after he became eligible for parole, because his “third strike” was not a serious or violent offence.

But there was a period when Shakoor believed he would spend the rest of his life in prison. He credits his Muslim faith with helping him persevere.

“Religion saved me from a doom-and-gloom attitude about spending my life in prison that a lot of people get trapped in,” he told Al Jazeera. “My faith was everything to me.”

Source: Al Jazeera