California’s Fiscal Crisis Affects Jews in Jail

A Rabbi Says ‘There Is Hardly Room for God’ — Or Kosher Food

Celebrating Behind Bars: Simchat Torah is marked by inmates and volunteers at the California Institution for Women in Corona.
Courtesy of rabi moshe halfon
Celebrating Behind Bars: Simchat Torah is marked by inmates and volunteers at the California Institution for Women in Corona.

By Rex Weiner

Published June 01, 2011, issue of June 10, 2011.
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For Jewish inmates at California Men’s Colony, a penal outpost sprawled between sunny vineyards and breezy horse pastures on California’s central coast, the annual Passover Seder led by Rabbi Lon Moskowitz is usually a celebration of the spirit of freedom, if not its reality.

But last April, guard shortages stemming from draconian state budget cutbacks forced a rolling lockdown throughout the California state prison system. And many prisoners were left sitting idle in their cells instead of singing “Dayenu” at the Seder table.

The lockdowns, along with a rash of other cost-cutting measures, have been forced by California’s ongoing fiscal meltdown. Caught in the squeeze are 146,000 inmates of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, currently held in facilities built for 80,000 — an overcrowding that recently led to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the CDCR’s inmate population by 32,000 over the next two years.

Now the state faces a looming legal conflict over inmates’ religious and constitutional rights, with the state’s court-ordered kosher food program among the initiatives falling victim to the cuts. Though state prisons continue to receive their kosher food allotments, said Moskowitz, the Jewish representative on the CDCR’s Chaplains Coordinating Committee, several of the facilities no longer have masgichim, or kosher food inspectors, to ensure that the allotments are, indeed, kosher.

“[California Men’s Colony’s] religious program was, in the past, the jewel on the crown of religious programming throughout all state institutions,” wrote Moskowitz, full-time Jewish chaplain of that prison, in an e-mail he recently circulated among colleagues who were protesting restrictions on religious programs. The e-mail, which he provided to the Forward, warned, “The chaplains, the volunteers, the programs and the process have been squeezed so tight that there is hardly room for God, religious values and denominational True Needs.”

Moskowitz said funds were lacking for essential religious artifacts, and for things such as “grape juice, matzo and candles for Shabbat.” Inmates, he said, “have less access to chapel services and true religious opportunities for prayer, study, penitential counseling, behavior modification programs and rehabilitation.” The situation for chaplains has become increasingly frustrating, he charged: “There is a steady move from being professional clerics to clerical workers spending most of the day doing administrative [work] and paperwork.”

Moskowitz is sounding the alarm after tending to Jewish prison inmates for 15 years. A key player among advocates for religious rights in the California prison system, he is chaplaincy commissioner for the California Board of Rabbis, Jewish representative on the State Advisory Committee on Institutional Religion and the union representative of Local 2620 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He is also CDCR liaison to the Jewish Kosher Food Program, which he helped initiate to provide kosher meals for registered Jewish inmates. Moskowitz and other supporters see this program as the front line of a battle to protect the religious rights of Jewish and other inmates in the current fiscal crisis.

California’s Kosher Food Program was initiated under court order after a 2003 lawsuit by a Jewish inmate at California Medical Facility at Vacaville. The lawsuit asserted the inmate’s right to kosher meals under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression.

As a result of the suit, said Paul Verke, a CDCR spokesman, Jewish inmates observing kosher diets get two sacks with cold foods for breakfast and lunch daily, and a dinner meal that can be heated in a special microwave oven at the prison. Inmates also receive fresh fruit, vegetables and salad. There is a special area designated in each prison for preparing kosher meals, and special utensils and equipment “designated just for the kosher food,” Verke said.

This year, 713 inmates are participating in the program, an increase from 684 at the end of 2010. About 3,200 inmates are also receiving halal meals at a daily cost of $3.20 per day. The budget for kosher meals — $8.50 a day per inmate, compared with $2.90 per day for the general menu — is assured by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, Verke said. “It’s something the CDCR takes very seriously,” he added.

Other states have started kosher meal programs after similar suits invoking RLUIPA. Prison systems in 35 states, as well as the federal government, currently provide kosher food to inmates as prepackaged meals from supervised kosher kitchens, or as part of a “common fare” religious diet program designed to satisfy the religious requirements of multiple faiths under one menu.

The problem in California is that a statewide hiring freeze has left many prisons without full-time chaplains of any faith. According to Moskowitz, there are 40 vacancies in the state chaplaincy program, and the CDCR “is not hiring to replace chaplains who retire, quit or are let go.” At California Men’s Colony, Moskowitz is tending to Muslim inmates in place of an imam who recently passed away.

Meanwhile, according to Moskowitz, Jewish chaplains have departed and not been replaced at Central California Women’s Facility and Valley State Prison for Women, both in Chowchilla; at North Kern State Prison, in Delano, and at California State Prison, in Corcoran.

Verke, the CDCR spokesman acknowledged that two prisons currently lack a Jewish chaplain and, consequently ongoing supervision of their kosher food programs. But he said his agency was “actively recruiting” to fill these vacancies under a exemption to the hiring freeze. Verke said that eight other prisons were now sharing a Jewish chaplain.

Moskowitz countered that without the ongoing supervision of a rabbi, or some other individual trained to act as a mashgiach, the Kosher Food Program must be suspended, as the food’s kosher status cannot be ensured. He charged that the state was continuing kosher food programs at these prisons despite the absence of ongoing supervision to maintain the appearance of complying with legal statutes and court orders.

“From its inception,” Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, agreed, “the Kosher Diet Program was predicated on the following principle: No Jewish Chaplain, no Kosher Diet Program.” The Board of Rabbis of Southern California oversees the certification of Jewish prison chaplains.

With state budgets in crisis nationwide, kosher diet programs in other states are also under pressure. In Texas prisons, the Enhanced Jewish Program covers 30 inmates and is “alive and kicking,” according to Chabad Outreach’s Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, a chaplain for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and mashgiach for the TDCJ’s food cannery since 2008. The program, partly supported by private donations, includes an annual Sukkot celebration. But the Texas chaplaincy, a $4.8 million program employing 121 full-time chaplains serving 114 prisons and jails, is under fire from budget cutters. Testifying in support of the program before the state legislature last March, Goldstein told Texas lawmakers, “A body without a soul is a piece of dead meat.”

In California, Moskowitz, who is 55 and said he makes $52,000 annually, argues for a chief chaplain who would oversee the program. He also advocates hiring at least five chaplains for each prison, representing each of the major faiths approved by the CDCR (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Native American), plus one more for other increasingly popular religious affiliations (Buddhist, Wiccan, Odinist, Rastafarian, Santeria) unrecognized by current policy.

That may seem like a pipe dream, given the state’s current financial state. But Moskowitz insisted: “It’s an investment that pays off. If I participate in the rehabilitation and reintroduction to society of one inmate, removing that inmate from the system covers the cost of my salary for one year.” Moskowitz claimed a 0% recidivism rate among the inmates with whom he works closely.

Efforts in California to save the Kosher Diet Program are ongoing. A meeting in April with several state representatives, including Senator Fran Pavley, was “positive,’ Diamond said. “They expressed a keen interest in religious freedom in prison, and in the issue of Jewish inmates and chaplains.” He added, however, that “it often takes a lawsuit to get action.”

Contact Rex Weiner at feedback@forward.com


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