A bill that proposes to add new state guidelines regarding religious clothing and grooming in prisons and jails, including what to do about headwear and beards, was assigned to the Senate Public Safety Committee over the weekend.
Senate Bill 309, authored by Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) would specifically allow the right to exercise religious freedom, including accommodations for grooming and prescribed religious clothing and headwear, in prisons and jails in California. The bill would allow these rights to be denied only when it is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling state interest in an immediate threat or specific demonstrable security risk to the facility, staff, or others in custody.
In addition, SB 309 would require a facility to accommodate these rights in specified ways, including, among others, by providing facility-issued religious garments or, if unavailable, allow the individual to retain their personal religious garment until a facility-issued garment becomes available. This would include garments such as hijabs, caps, yamakas, and turbans. The sheriff of each county or the administrator of each local detention facility will also have to develop and implement a policy following these requirements on or before January 1, 2025.
Senator Cortese wrote the bill due to the high number of incidents in California jails and prisons where religious clothing was forcibly removed or facial hair of religious significance was shaved for reasons ranging from wanting an unobstructed photo for files to concerns that weapons or other contraband could be hidden inside. Cortese also noted that it is also a matter of civil rights and religious freedom to not be impended from wearing clothing that is core to their beliefs.
“Incarcerated Californians maintain basic civil liberties while they serve their time,” said Senator Cortese earlier this month in a statement. “SB 309 would ensure that Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and other religious minorities should preserve their right to religious dress and practice without harm or disruption.
“It’s a fundamental tenet of many religions to wear certain garments. We believe it’s a matter of civil rights and religious freedom. Right now there’s no uniformity across the state. Of course you have to balance security concerns. We see this as an opportunity to export law enforcement best practices.”
Support for the bill accumulated quickly from both religious rights organizations and some correctional officers associations who both noted how critical freedom of religion is while incarcerated.
“At the heart of ensuring civil rights is recognizing a person’s humanity,” noted Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Policy and Government Affairs Manager Nazeehah Khan. “Whether you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, or a member of any other faith, the ability to practice your faith is essential to the rehabilitation process. We thank Senator Cortese for his leadership in recognizing the value of religious expression for all and we look forward to working with the Senator’s office to make this bill a reality in California.”
Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association Vice President Antonio Cueva also added that “The Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association believes in the Constitution of the United States and its provisions which allows for freedom of religion, We stand with our CAIR friends to ensure those freedoms are guaranteed and protected.”
Issues over SB 309
However, many have either come out against SB 309 or demanded clarity within the bill for when more extreme measures would be needed.
“A lot of the incidents people are citing are decades old or only happened because no one had told staff of the religious significance of the headgear or what have you,” said Paul Schmidt, a former prison guard who now provides assistance to guards facing disciplinary action, to the Globe on Tuesday. “Where I worked, we generally allowed it but did checks like a quick pat to make sure they weren’t bringing anything in or hiding anything. We only found a small homemade knife once, but that one time just ruined it for everybody.”
“We understand, believe it or not, that these things are a part of peoples identities. We don’t ask people to cover up tattoos or remove bibles after all. It’s just that, sometimes, we need to do extra security work for it. But this bill really needs to clarify what ‘least restrictive means of achieving a compelling state interest in an immediate threat’ and ‘specific demonstrable security risk to the facility, staff, or others in custody’ specifically mean. For example, if one inmate has been found of smuggling something using an allowed piece of religious clothing, can we be allowed to remove it? Or, more commonly, can we have them remove it during pictures or processing? If they escape, we need clear pictures to help with getting them back, and one that is obstructed wouldn’t exactly be helpful. We just need some clarity here.”
“Religious rights are important, but we also have to remember that they are criminals, and if they’re imposing a threat, we need to do our jobs and prevent any incidents from happening. If that means removing a turban to try and find contraband or not allowing a woman to wear a hijab after she used it to hide a weapon, that should not be impeded in anyway. Those are extreme example, but relevant nonetheless.”
SB 309 is expected to be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee soon.
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