HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — The battle to secure kosher meals for an observant Jew serving a life sentence in a Florida prison has been won, but activists say the war is not over. It is still being waged in Florida and a handful of other states that refuse to offer kosher food to inmates.
The Florida Department of Corrections recently settled a lawsuit with Alan Cotton, a convicted murderer, about whether he could receive kosher meals at the Everglades Correctional Institution. The settlement dictates that Cotton be served kosher food; however it makes no such provisions for 600 other Jewish prisoners whom the state estimates are currently incarcerated in Florida’s prison network.
Kosher food is now available in all federal prisons, as well as in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach county prisons. But some states, including Florida, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, have refused to make such food available and, as a result, are facing legal challenges.
Cotton’s case united the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington D.C.-based conservative legal action group, and the Aleph Institute, a Miami-based nonprofit that advises prisons and military groups on how to accommodate Jewish religious practice.
“It’s sad that they are still denying a person his religious rights in prison,” said Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison and military programs of the Aleph Institute, an offshoot of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic community. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Florida prison officials have cited several reasons for their reluctance to supply kosher food.
“A true kosher meal costs much more,” said corrections department spokesman Sterling Ivey.
According to the state, it costs $12 a day to supply kosher meals, compared to $2.45 a day for regular meals.
Prison officials are also concerned that if they supply kosher food to one prisoner, any inmate could convert to Judaism and demand the special meals, which are considered healthier than the standard jailhouse grub. Additionally, prison officials fear, kosher food recipients may start selling their food to other prisoners.
Fearing a precedent-setting defeat if the case goes to trial, the corrections department agreed to settle with Cotton, a 58-year-old inmate at Everglades. “As a result of recent federal rulings on this subject, we felt we wouldn’t have a strong case at trial,” Ivey said.
The settlement calls for Cotton to be supplied with kosher food, but says nothing about the rights of other Jewish inmates in Florida prisons.
“I wasn’t so happy they settled,” said Rabbi Katz, whose organization argues that the number of “authentic” Jews in Florida prisons is closer to 300. “But the settlement is like getting your foot in the door. We can use this to help other prisoners. If it went to trial, who knows what would have happened.”
“It was a smart move on the state of Florida’s part,” said Derek Gaubatz, an official at the Becket Fund. “But it was ultimately the client’s choice.”
The settlement was applauded by Kara Gotsch, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, though the organization has not taken a formal position on the kosher issue. “There are 2 million prisoners, and that issue just has not made it onto our docket,” Gotsch said. She added: “Someone doesn’t lose their religious rights just because they’re in prison.”
Officials at the Aleph Institute said that they are optimistic that kosher meals will soon be available to all Jewish prisoners in Florida. They have lined up the support of some state legislators and lobbyists in Tallahassee who have begun to pressure the corrections department on the issue.
Cotton, who is serving a life sentence for murder, started receiving his kosher meals in October. The portions are actually smaller than the ones supplied to other prisoners, consisting of 12 ounces of meat or chicken, with a vegetable and starch.
“It’s really not that exciting of a meal,” Katz said.