A complaint filed in federal court Thursday alleges the Trump administration violated religious protections for asylum seekers held this summer at the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon.
The lawsuit states detainees of the Sikh religion weren't allowed to practice their faith. It was filed by two detainees, Pachattar Singh and Gurpreet Singh, though it is intended to represent dozens of others like them.
"They were not permitted to cover their heads and were punished when they did so," Portland lawyers Matthew McHenry and Tiffany Harris wrote in the lawsuit on behalf of their clients. "They were denied a diet conforming to their religious beliefs. They were denied access to their required religious texts, and denied access to a suitable location in which to conduct prayers and services."
On May 31, with little notice to prison staff, Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent more than 120 detainees from the U.S. southern border to the federal detention center in Sheridan.
At the time, ICE said it was sending up to 1,600 immigrant detainees to five federal prisons in Texas, Oregon, California, Washington and Arizona. The agency said it needed more space to house detainees because of the Trump administration's recently announced zero-tolerance immigration policy.
Few, if any, of the detainees were serving a criminal sentence, yet they were housed in a criminal setting in violation of the U.S. Constitution, according to other attorneys working to release the detainees.
Immigration is a civil offense. The detention standards are less restrictive compared to those charged with or serving a criminal settings. Still, detaining asylum seekers in federal prisons on such a wide-spread scale was unprecedented.
Only three ICE detainees remain housed in federal prisons. All are being held in Sheridan, though none of them are Sikh.
The lawsuit filed Thursday said the federal government violated the law because it failed to comply with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The lawsuit states that Sikh must wear a turban, eat a vegetarian diet and pray at set times every day.
"While detained at Sheridan, asylum-seeking detainees of the Sikh faith were denied a vegetarian diet, and many were forced to eat meat to avoid malnutrition and starvation," the lawsuit states. "When plaintiffs covered their heads with anything, they were forced to remove it. They were told to pray in their cells, but their religious beliefs do not allow them to pray in a room with a toilet."
Later, the detainees were told they should pray in the prison barbershop, but it was also unsanitary because of hair and beard trimmings on the floor, the lawsuit states.
Between June 15 and July 9, Oregon's Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay contacted the warden at Sheridan three times, the lawsuit states. Hay raised concerns about the detainees ability to practice their faith.
"While the BOP made limited improvements in the general housing and nutritional conditions of the detainees, the restrictions on the religious practices of the Sikh detainees continued until the last Sikh detainee was released on September 20, 2018," the lawsuit states. "Plaintiffs’ inability to freely exercise these religious beliefs was a cause of immeasurable distress for them."
The federal government has not yet responded to the lawsuit.