Death row inmate sues after beard, hair cut

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Justice Frank Seepersad –

A death-row prisoner has filed a constitutional claim alleging his rights to religious belief and observance have been infringed by the State after he was forced to shave his beard and hair so his photograph could be taken.

Shawn James, who was convicted of murder in 2019, also said he had asked for “dates” (the fruit) for fasting periods and had been given exemption from dental appointments and also received clearance to fast for Ramadan so the prison authorities knew he was a Muslim.

“The claimant feels distressed, deflated and downtrodden since the incident of the shaving. It appears to the claimant that the shaving was imposed as a means of punishment and/or control over him.

“It was not a genuine case which required him to shave for health reasons but a form of punishment under the pretext of discipline designed to teach him a lesson and send a strong message to other Muslim inmates in the prison that they must ‘bat in their crease’ and simply shut up and maintain the status quo or else they will feel the full wrath and fury and might and muscle of the prison officers.”

James’s claim has been assigned to Justice Frank Seepersad.

It said the cutting and shaving of his hair were a breach of prison rules since the court has previously ruled that convicted prisoners who are Muslims are allowed to grow their beards in keeping with their religious beliefs.

“Islam is an ancient and well-established religion. Indeed, it is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, and its principles and tenets would be protected by the Constitution.

“For the claimant, the wearing of the beard is an important part of his Islamic faith and is, therefore, a manifestation of the individual’s belief. Islam has a firm footing in Trinidad and Tobago’s history and culture, with the religion emanating from indentureship and slavery in the 1800’s.

“Primary and secondary schools exist for Muslim followers (as well as non-Muslim attendees)…”

James, 39, said he had been growing his hair and beard for years before he was convicted.

In December 2021, he and other inmates were taken to the photography room for their photographs to be taken. He said he told prison officers he was a Muslim. He also said other Muslim inmates told the officers of a court ruling which held the cutting and shaving of another inmate was unlawful. In that case, the State had conceded that shaving a prisoner’s beard and denying him the right to act as an imam for fellow Muslim inmates was unconstitutional.

James said they were told they were not required to cut their hair and shave their beard unless it was for medical reasons but were required for their photographs to be taken.

In the photography room, he claimed he was told condemned prisoners had no rights so his hair would be cut and his beard shaved. That officer also allegedly told him that even if there was a previous court ruling, it would not apply to condemned inmates. James said he and other inmates were told the prison’s emergency response unit would be instructed to forcefully make them comply with the order to cut their hair and shave their beards.

“The claimant felt deeply disturbed by the disparaging and demeaning actions of the State’s servants/agents. The claimant felt as though he was being calculatingly discriminated against for practising his religion and that he was being forced to choose between violating his religious beliefs and facing disciplinary action at the hands of the prison officers.”

He also said while on remand from 2005-2019, he never cut his hair or shaved his beard. His claim also said there was no written medical that his hair needed to be cut because of vermin, dirt or health reasons.

“The claimant feels conscience-stricken, bothered and discomforted on a daily basis in the period after his hair and beard were shaved. The claimant feels guilty…”

James is seeking declarations that his rights have been breached as well as compensation for those breaches and orders to ensure the rights of Muslim prisoners are protected.

He is represented by Harrynarine Singh.