New CA law aims to protect inmate religious practices in prisons

New statewide policy sets clearer rules for inmates about religious headwear, clothing and grooming

Zach Fuentes Image
Monday, October 23, 2023
New CA law aims to protect inmate religious practices
A celebration was held in the South Bay over a bill that was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, protecting religious practices in prison.

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- There was a celebration Tuesday in the South Bay over a bill that was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The law created a statewide policy that supporters say sets clear rules for inmates about religious headwear, clothing and grooming.

"The beard is essential to being a man, a Muslim man. That's part of your identity, just like it is for a Muslim woman to wear the hijab, the head cover, and that's part of their identity," said Sajad Shakoor.

Shakoor is well-known today for his chain of restaurants named Falafel Corner. But years before his professional success, he was in prison.

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It was religion, he says, that led to his achievements and kept him and so many others from returning to prison.

"Every study that I've looked at, has pointed to the same outcome," Shakoor said, "That the most transformative and impactful event in the prisoner's life is his religion."

But one of the biggest challenges of Shakoor's time in prison were the limitations on how he could express his religion.

"For example, this is a kufi," said Shakoor pointing to his religious headwear while talking about his time incarcerated. "This is something that all Muslims wear. They didn't want us wearing that. They didn't want us to have our beards. There were grooming standards and there were dress codes, and they were pretty strict about enforcing them."

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State Senator Dave Cortese said there were existing policies that gave inmates the right to certain religious clothing and headwear but only at state-run facilities.

Each local detention facility could decide a policy on its own.

But Senate Bill 309, introduced by Cortese and now signed into law, creates a widespread policy on religious clothing, headwear and grooming for inmates in California.

"The U.S. Constitution has been around for a long time and the fact that we've had jail and prison systems that have had policies that are at odds with religious expression, needed to be changed," Cortese said. "There's no way that those civil rights, the Bill of Rights should stop at the entry point or the booking point into a prison or jail."

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Senator Cortese, Shakoor and other community leaders gathered at the Bay Area Council on American-Islamic Relations site in Santa Clara Tuesday to celebrate the signing of the law that happened earlier this month.

It's a law supporters say isn't just beneficial for the Muslim community but all religions.

"This is monumental for the prison system," Shakoor said. "Just imagine that you can actually practice your religion without having that fear hanging over you."

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