Suit Targets Curbs on Turban Wearing in Jail

Times Staff Writer

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department on behalf of a Sikh asylum seeker who says his religious rights are being violated because jail officials refuse to let him wear a turban at all times.

Harpal Singh Cheema, 47, an Indian national, was detained by immigration authorities in 1997. He has been held at the Yuba County Jail since September 2002.

“It’s troubling that he has been detained for as long as he has and, at the same time, that he is not being allowed to comply with the fundamental requirements of his religion,” said Robin Goldfaden, an ACLU staff attorney.

“He has been subjected to conditions that go against constitutional and statutory guidelines that are there to allow freedom to exercise one’s religion.”

Devout followers of the Sikh faith are enjoined to keep their heads covered at all times.


Civil rights advocates said Cheema’s case was symbolic of myriad instances in which inmates’ religious rights were being violated within the prison system, through the restriction of religious garb or denial of reading materials. In some cases, advocates say, authorities refuse to tell Muslims which way is east -- the direction followers of the Islamic faith must face when praying.

“This kind of thing can be used to torture people,” said Kit Gage, director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based group formed to protect the right of political dissent. “It’s not physical torture, but the psychological torture has got to be enormously painful nonetheless.”

Cheema, who was an attorney in his homeland and an activist in the San Francisco Bay Area, is seeking asylum on the grounds that he was brutally tortured and persecuted in India because of his political and legal activities. He has long advocated for an independent Sikh state.

His asylum application, originally filed in 1993, is pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals.

Cheema’s lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, names Yuba County Sheriff Virginia Black; the jail’s warden, Mark Chandless; and officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

ICE contracts with the Yuba County Jail, because the federal agency does not have its own detention facility in Northern California, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice. And contracted facilities follow their own rules, which ICE respects.

Yuba County Counsel Dan Montgomery said head coverings were generally allowed as long as they were “consistent with safety and security and the orderly operation of the facility” and were not “perceived as posing a threat.”

He noted, however, that a turban could be used to conceal a weapon or contraband.

“Approaching a male Sikh and taking his turban off is a great affront, so the ability to search is impaired,” Montgomery said.

Kice said facilities run by her agency typically allow religious head coverings.

“We have always sought to accommodate unique religious needs, unique dietary needs and things of that nature,” she said, adding that detainees also have access to religious materials and prayer services. “We deal with people from around the world. This is something we are faced with on a daily basis.”

Kice said that Cheema had been offered the opportunity to move to an ICE-run facility in 2003 but that his lawyer at the time had refused.

Cheema also signed an agreement in 2002, allowing him to wear a turban only when at his bunk, and as long as he was reading a religious book, praying or eating.

Goldfaden, who was not representing Cheema then, did not comment on the decision not to relocate him to an ICE-run detention center. But she said that her client had moved to several facilities since 1997 and that the moves had been disruptive.

She said Cheema thought he had no choice but to sign the agreement restricting use of his turban, and considered it to be a temporary measure.

Either way, she added, the “Yuba County Jail has an obligation to comply with the law, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has an obligation to ensure that the people it detains, wherever they are placed, are housed under conditions that comply with the law.”

The ACLU suit charges that the “defendants have been unjustifiably and unlawfully subjecting Mr. Cheema to extraordinary restrictions on his use of a religious head-covering, prohibiting him from leaving his bed with his head covered.”

Cheema’s lawyers are requesting an injunction to stop jail officials from limiting the use of turbans “subject to reasonable security requirements.”

Jaskaran Kaur, executive director of Ensaaf, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based advocacy group that works with survivors of human rights abuses from India, said wearing a turban adheres to the Sikh code of conduct. The head covering is part of the “Sikh uniform” for men, Kaur said.

Ensaaf means “justice” in several South Asian languages.

“It’s not cultural paraphernalia,” Kaur said. “It symbolizes a Sikh’s commitment to his faith and its principles, such as dedication to the Sikh way of life.”