The defendant in a lawsuit filed by a Muslim inmate in Colorado who was made to shave off his beard in violation of his constitutional right to wear one is referred to as John Doe for an unusual reason. According to the lawyer in the case, the Colorado Department of Corrections has refused to identify the employee who gave the order.
"We've gotten no cooperation from the State of Colorado in terms of telling us who the guard is who did this," says David Lane, the legal representative for plaintiff Tajuddin Ashaheed. "They engaged in a cover-up to prevent us from finding the right guy to sue."
The lawsuit, accessible below in its entirety, makes it clear that Ashaheed's identification as a Muslim is no passing fancy. It's been on record with CDOC since 1993, and he reaffirmed his status on July 5, 2016, when he was taken to the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, the department's intake facility, to begin serving a ninety-day sentence for a parole violation.
This period happened to take place over Ramadan, described in the complaint as "the most sacred month for Muslims," and Ashaheed is said to have long observed the Sunnah ritual of allowing his beard to grow according to "a fundamental tenet of Islam."
This shouldn't have been a problem thanks to a unanimous 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As noted by the New York Times, the case involved Muslim inmate Gregory H. Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad), who was serving a life sentence for domestic battery and burglary in Arkansas. Because regulations in that state banned facial hair with the exception of "neatly trimmed" mustaches and quarter-inch beards for inmates with skin issues, Holt's request to grow a half-inch beard was rejected, supposedly for reasons of safety. In court, the Arkansas legal team maintained that even a short beard could be used to conceal "anything from razor blades to drugs to homemade darts."
The U.S. Supreme Court jurists rejected that rationale, and Lane says Muslim inmates can now legally grow beards up to one inch in length. But when Ashaheed asked CDOC personnel to let him keep the beard, the worker in question is quoted in the lawsuit as saying he "didn't want to hear about it," and that if the prisoner refused to shave, he'd be "thrown in the hole."
Ashaheed reluctantly gave in, and as a result, the document says, he "spent the remaining holy days of Ramadan, and months thereafter, beardless, feeling dehumanized, humiliated, his faith having been disrespected."
The suit adds: "This incident constitutes part of a CDOC/DRDC pattern and practice of substantially burdening and interfering with Muslim inmates’ ability to freely practice their religion, including, but not limited to, publicly demeaning Muslim practices, culturally isolating Muslim inmates, and generally fostering an environment in which the practice of Islam is burdensome to Muslim inmates. On information and belief, other religious groups do not face the same challenges, nor are they subject to the same apparent animus and burdens as those directed by Defendant Officer Doe towards Muslim inmates."
In light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which was just over a year old when the Ashaheed incident took place, CDOC representatives have some explaining to do — but they apparently tried to delay doing so for as long as possible.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"We asked for help from the attorney general's office to identify the guard," attorney Lane says. "They indicated that they had corrected the guard's error and counseled him — but they wouldn't tell us who he is."
The stonewalling continued at a January 8 hearing, Lane goes on. "The judge said, 'I don't know why the state is doing this. The case isn't going away.'"
Indeed, Lane continued to press for the guard's identity, and in lieu of simply providing it, authorities have now given up photos of multiple guards said to have been on duty when the shaving took place. The result is what Lane calls a "tentative ID" of the guard in question, although he stresses that "more investigation is needed" to definitively confirm it.
He's got six months to do so. The statute of limitations on the case expires on July 5, 2018, two years after the incident. Click to read Tajuddin Ashaheed v. John Doe.