By Balpreet Singh (Legal Counsel, WSO)
“Bhaji, even Sikhs make mistakes….”
This was the message I received during a recent visit to a group of Sikh inmates at the Pittsburgh Institution, a minimum-security facility located in Joyceville, Ontario on the same property as Joyceville Penitentiary.
The provision of religious services to Sikh inmates is an issue that hasn’t received much attention. When the Federal Government announced cuts to its chaplaincy program, it was reported that less than one per cent of Canada’s inmates are of the Sikh faith.
That having been said, there are indeed Sikh inmates in several federal prisons who require our assistance.
A couple of months ago WSO had received a message from the Chaplain at Pittsburgh Institution requesting religious material for Sikh inmates and also passing on a request from the inmates that someone visit the Institution to provide spiritual services.
As a first step, WSO sent a gutkas (Sikh prayer books), books on the Sikh faith in both English and Punjabi as well as audio CDs. We were also informed that the inmates required material to cover their heads.
The visit to the Institution was a bit more complicated as I first had to obtain permission to wear the kirpan during my visit.
When I arrived for the visit, I was greeted by a small group of Sikh inmates. We proceeded to the Institution’s Chapel for our meeting.
The inmates were very happy to have the opportunity to discuss their Sikh faith and have a discussion on various matters. One inmate told me that he had been incarcerated for the past 15 years and since that time he had tried to arrange a visit by a Sikh ‘chaplain’ but had been unsuccessful. The inmates as a group told me that they had regularly been pressing for this visit for the past eight months.
A concern was expressed that while inmates of other faiths receive spiritual support and services from their respective faith communities, nothing exists for Sikh inmates. There are also no regular outside visits and unlike Christian and Muslim inmates, they have not been given a space to meet.
Another disadvantage faced by Sikh inmates is that while other inmates are permitted to go on day leave to attend services at churches or other places of worship, nothing similar has been set up with local gurdwaras. The inmates expressed their desire to go for a day to the gurdwara and perform seva and listen to keertan, but for this to happen, they would need a gurdwara to agree to host them and also to arrange their transportation to and from the Institution.
The absence of chaplaincy support for Sikh inmates also has a very practical negative impact. While other inmates can call on members of their communities or their chaplains to testify in their favour at parole hearings, Sikh inmates do not have the same benefit. They also do not have the opportunity to create a positive record of successful visits to their places of worship like other inmates, which also is a major disadvantage when applying for parole.
Our meeting lasted over two hours and various issues were discussed including attempts to convert Sikh inmates to other faiths, the feeling of isolation from the Sikh community which seems to ignore they exist, along with other practical day-to-day difficulties faced during incarceration.
Since the initial package we sent to Pittsburgh, WSO has been contacted by groups of Sikh inmates in two other facilities requesting Sikh literature and other resources. Some Sikh inmates also requested turbans which were not easily available to them.
WSO will be engaging with Corrections Canada and Federal Prisons in order to connect with Sikh inmates. As the inmates in Pittsburgh noted, people make mistakes but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten by the community.
We will be sending religious material and items such as dastaars and rumaals to inmates in more prisons in the coming days and we will also try to coordinate visits for the inmates and, if possible, trips to local gurdwaras.
If you feel this is a worthwhile endeavour, we would encourage you provide your support. We are looking for individuals willing to visit the inmates and also donations for the purchase of religious material. You can submit your donations online HERE
We look forward to your support on this important project.