The tiny population of religious Jews in prison has plenty of company when it comes to keeping kosher behind bars. A number of secular Jews, messianic Jews, Black Hebrew Israelites and, in many cases, people with no Jewish background at all eat a traditional Jewish diet.
Jews, according to one estimate, make up just one-sixth — or about 4,000 — of the 24,000 inmates who eat kosher food in American prisons. And since kosher food can cost more than twice as much as regular fare, it’s costing taxpayers millions to feed all those who want to avoid treyf.
“We want them to be very careful about who they give kosher food to,” said Menachem Katz, director of prison and military outreach at the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-affiliated social services group. “We don’t want them to give kosher food to every Tom, Dick and Harry if they say they are Jewish.”
“It is a major problem, and it creates so much animosity” from prison officials, said Gary Friedman, founder of Jewish Prisoner Services International. Friedman provided estimates based on visits to prisons around the country.
The popularity of kosher food among non-Jewish inmates is one reason that many prisons around the country are seeking to curtail or change their Jewish dietary programs. But advocates for Jewish inmates say that prisons could easily solve this problem by limiting kosher food to Jews.
“They want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Katz said. “Rather than get into the nitty-gritty, they say, ‘Let’s just destroy the whole thing.’”
Kosher food is a hot commodity in prisons for a number of reasons. Some prisoners simply think it tastes better; many others believe it is safer than standard-issue prison fare, according to prison chaplains and advocates. Kosher food also often comes prepackaged, making it easy to trade or sell among inmates.
For instance, at California Men’s Colony, a medium and minimum security facility in San Luis Obispo, Calif., prisoners who keep kosher receive three daily meals in a sack that they bring back to their cells. The meals consist of factory-sealed cut vegetables, frozen or non-perishable dishes like lasagna, and whole fruits and vegetables. Inmates frequently trade kosher food for prison-issued paper money, which can be used to buy items in the facility’s canteen.
“If someone can have special food, that makes them feel special and it makes them appear special to other people,” said Rabbi Lon Moskowitz, the chaplain at California Men’s. “It also has the added benefit of potentially being able to generate revenue on the black market.”
Kosher meals in prison are provided because prisoners in the United States are guaranteed religious freedoms under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. If, according to case law, an inmate shows a “sincerely held” religious belief, then he or she is entitled to religious services, such as kosher or halal food.
The law is vague about what constitutes a sincere belief. Last year, there were more than 60 suits filed around the country by inmates claiming they were unfairly barred from following a kosher diet in prison, according to the Religion Clause blog, which tracks freedom of religion cases in prisons. About 40 of these were dismissed. Friedman, of Jewish Prisoner Services International, has himself been sued by inmates who claim they were denied kosher food by his organization, which formerly contracted with the Washington State Department of Corrections to provide religious services to inmates.