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NY prison system backs down after Muslim corrections officers sue over refusal to shave their beards

2019-08-27

David Feliciano, left, and Brian Sughrim pose near City Hall on Aug. 26, 2019 in New York. (Alec Tabak/for New York Daily News)

Earlier this month, the state prison system vowed to fire two Muslim correction officers who refused to shave their beards — despite the fact they’d sported facial hair at work for over a decade.

The men, Brian Sughrim and David Feliciano, noted in their lawsuit that Gov. Cuomo had signed a bill banning discrimination over facial hair less than a week before they were suspended from their jobs at Fishkill Correctional Facility.

Late on Monday, after the Daily News asked questions about the lawsuit, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reversed course.

“Given the recently signed legislation by Gov. Cuomo, DOCCS has conducted a secondary review of the requested exemptions dealing with facial hair and has made the determination to grant the requests, reinstating both employees to their positions with full back pay,” Corrections spokesman Thomas Mailey said. “DOCCS will also be reviewing its rules regarding facial hair immediately in light of the new law.”

Attorney Joshua Moskovitz, who represented both men, praised the decision. “Immediately reinstating them was the only right thing to do,” he said.

“DOCCS must now adopt policies and guidance that ensure corrections officers are given reasonable accommodations for their religious beliefs, and are not afraid to request accommodations. No one should have to chose between their religion and their job.”

The two corrections officers said many of their colleagues at the prison in Beacon, N.Y. were allowed to wear facial hair “secular” reasons.

“We talk about New York living in a melting pot and the state of New York is going to force me to shave my beard?" Feliciano, 49, said. "Because I’m a Muslim I won’t be able to feed my family and take care of myself?”

He and Sughrim were suspended earlier this month, stripped of their badges and escorted out of the facility in front of fellow correction officers — some of whom were still sporting goatees and beards, according to the suit.

“I felt degraded. Stripped of my dignity,” Sughrim, 51, said. “I had colleagues yelling, ‘Are you stupid? Why don’t you shave?’”

Fishkill Correctional Facility
Fishkill Correctional Facility (Google)

The men had faced the prospect of losing their pensions — an unnecessarily harsh punishment for merely remaining true to their religions, Moskovitz argued.

The trouble started in March when DOCCS ordered Sughrim and Feliciano to produce “an approved medical exemption” justifying their beards, though it was widely known within the prison they were Muslim, according to the suit. Both men shared doctors’ notes showing they had “pseudofolliculitis barbae,” in which shaving leads to ingrown hairs that develop into painful bumps, the suit claims.

Sughrim had been granted approval to sport the beard due to the condition in 1995. Feliciano was granted approval in 2013. Nevertheless, DOCCS rejected their requests to maintain their beards for medical and religious reasons.

Last year, the NYPD changed its policy on facial hair following a lawsuit charging that departmental limits on beard length violated Muslims’ civil rights.

Sughrim said he’d learned over his 25-year career that DOCCS and the state were “always bullies."

“I thought they’d stop short of violating the constitution,” he said.