California’s correctional system is facing criticism over a policy barring officers from maintaining full beards, a rule that civil rights activists say is discriminatory against members of the Sikh faith and Black officers.
In a letter sent to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Sikh Coalition claimed the new policy would disproportionately affect non-white officers and force some guards to choose between their religion and disciplinary sanctions.
“This policy has created enormous fear and confusion for Sikh CDCR peace officers whose previously held religious accommodations are no longer valid. It now seemingly forces them to either comply with the shaving requirement under extreme duress or risk their employment,” Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh coalition’s senior counsel, said in a statement.
Vicky Waters, the assistant secretary of communications for the corrections department, said the policy in question was not specifically targeting facial hair but rather focused on the need for guards to wear N95 masks inside state prisons to comply with the department’s continued attempts to reduce exposure to COVID-19. Coronavirus outbreaks have been a persistent problem in prison settings since the height of the pandemic.
“For almost three years, we had COVID-19 to contend with, and masking in certain functions of our operations is absolutely necessary,” Waters said in an e-mail. “This is not discriminatory, it is simply based on safety and compliance.”
In the letter, the ACLU claimed the policy stemmed from a September 2022 corrections department memorandum that removed the phrase “full beard” from a list of accepted grooming options. Devout members of the Sikh faith are expected to keep their beards unshorn or avoid trimming them to display their commitment to their religion.
The ACLU and the Sikh Coalition also claimed the policy was discriminatory against Black officers, who are more likely than others to suffer from pseudofolliculitis barbae, a medical condition where shaving can cause severe inflammation of the skin.
Waters said the department “continues to engage all employees who require religious or medical reasonable accommodation in the interactive process to include consideration of all viable reasonable accommodation alternatives.”
The policy would appear to run counter to established case law.
Late last year, a federal court found the U.S. Marine Corps was wrong to deny three Sikh men entry into basic training because they refused to shave.
The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act also protects the rights of prisoners to observe their chosen faith, including access to certain types of garments or diets, unless the need would compromise security behind prison walls, though it is unclear if those protections extend to officers.
A number of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies — including the Ventura and Los Angeles county sheriff’s departments — have been sued in recent years for preventing people in their custody from having access to religious headwear or appropriate diets.