Not Just Jews Eat Kosher Food in Prison

Millions Spent on Special Meals for Non-Jewish Inmates

Keeping Kosher: Rabbi Sholom Lipskar wraps tefillin with a prisoner in a Florida jail.
courtesy of aleph institute
Keeping Kosher: Rabbi Sholom Lipskar wraps tefillin with a prisoner in a Florida jail.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published April 30, 2012, issue of May 04, 2012.
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The law “leaves room for individuals to disagree about what religions require,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund is currently appealing a Texas judge’s decision to bar an Iranian-Jewish inmate from receiving kosher food.

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that most American prisons are run on the state level. That means there are 50-plus departments of corrections around the country housing some 1.4 million people, according to a 2010 estimate, each of which has a unique interpretation of the rules about religious practice and diet.

In the federal corrections system, there are some 4,127 individuals receiving a so-called Certified Religious Diet out of a total of 217,000 inmates, or about 2% of the population. The diet costs $2.33 per meal as opposed to $0.99 for regular prison fare, and accommodates Jews and non-Jews with religious dietary needs. In order for a prisoner to access the diet, he must make a request in writing and then be interviewed by a chaplain. If an inmate is denied access, he can reapply in six months.

According to Goodrich, 35 states currently offer kosher meals in prisons. Prison officials, he said, are “rightly hesitant to set themselves up to say who is Jewish and who is not.” They often leave the decision in the hands of chaplains, Jewish or otherwise.

In California, for instance, Jewish chaplains oversee kosher programs at the state’s prisons, feeding kosher meals to about 800 people out of about 140,000 — or about 0.6% of — inmates. California has a strict policy against allowing non-Jewish prisoners to access kosher food, which costs about $8 a day as opposed to $3 a day for the regular diet. Even with the tight rules, California spends some $2 million per year on kosher food. At California Men’s Colony, inmates must fill out forms detailing their familial and religious backgrounds in order to be admitted into the program. Moskowitz said he asks non-Jewish prisoners who want to eat kosher to try practicing Judaism for six months before they can qualify for the special diet.

Recently, a messianic Jew named Margarito Jesus Garcia challenged the California system, claiming that a Jewish chaplain violated his religious rights by denying him kosher food. A California superior court ruled against Garcia, but in January, Garcia won his appeal.

According to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa, the department is considering shifting away from providing kosher meals for Jews alone and toward creating a common fare diet to accommodate all religious groups. Sessa said that inmates who keep kosher sometimes “manipulate the system,” asking to switch to non-kosher meals if the food is more desirable. “It gives us reason to think about what we might do differently,” he said.

The cost of kosher and halal foods led prison officials in the Indiana Department of Correction to drop their religious dietary programs altogether in 2009, serving those inmates a vegan diet instead. With budgets tight and the money spent on kosher and halal meals doubling every month, an official said the state had little choice.

“We got to the point of almost having to choose between correctional officers or special food,” said Stephen Hall, director of religious and volunteer services at the Indiana DOC.

In 2010, an Indiana court mandated the DOC to reinstate its religious food program when a Jewish inmate sued. But last year, the American Civil Liberties Union said that the DOC was in contempt of court because it administered a kosher diet to only half of those inmates who identified as Jews, a charge that the DOC denied.

“The decision of the court was that if someone has a sincere religious belief, they should have a kosher diet,” said Kenneth Falk, the Indiana ACLU’s legal director.

There have also been debates about whether the kosher meals served to prisoners meet religious standards for kosher food.

In Nevada last June, a Jewish inmate named Howard Ackerman sued the Nevada Department of Corrections in a class-action lawsuit, contending that the DOC’s new ‘common fare’ menu was not actually kosher. The suit claimed, among other things, that the food was prepared on surfaces where milk and meat were mixed, and that the trays on which the food was served previously held non-kosher food. In February, a federal judge issued an injunction in the case to stop the department from serving the new food to inmates. According to Ackerman’s lawyer, Jacob Hafter, the case included about 40 to 50 Orthodox Jews, but also more than 200 other people who wanted the kosher diet.

Nevada DOC officials have said they will make sure that the common fare diet meets kosher standards.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com and follow her on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff


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