Rikers Island Inmates Seek Different Menu Behind Bars

By Max Gross

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
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Three Jewish prisoners in the New York City jail on Rikers Island are suing the commissioner of the Department of Corrections demanding a change in the menu.

No, these prisoners are not campaigning for kosher cuisine. They want their jailers to provide them with a vegan diet that excludes not only meat but also eggs, dairy and all other animal products.

The three inmates are using religion as the basis for their legal action. According to the suit filed against commissioner Martin F. Horn, which had its preliminary hearing on Wednesday, the prisoners — Joshua Schwartz, 20, Jennifer Greenberg, 17, and Benjamin Persky, 24 — are being denied their First and 14th Amendment rights to practice their brand of Judaism.

“Their request is based on religious principles,” said Tal Ronnen, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is paying the legal fees for the case. “There are so many passages in the Talmud” that support vegetarianism.

Ronnen is quick to cite a long list of rabbis who have embraced a vegetarian lifestyle, from the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, to the current chief rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shaar Yashuv Cohen, and the chief rabbi of Ireland, Rabbi David Rosen.

But others are somewhat more skeptical.

Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, said there is “probably not a halachic case” for vegetarianism. “There are Jewish vegetarians, and there’s a whole literature [on Jewish vegetarianism], but these people make a whole lot out of relatively little.” But, Stern adds, “As a general matter, it’s not up to the state to decide.”

Jeffrey Kerr, a lawyer for PETA who is handling the suit for the three prisoners, said the prisoners should be able to decide for themselves whether their dietary habits have a religious foundation. “It’s their faith, not ours,” he said. “From their perspective, it’s part of their religious faith.”

Kerr said that most prisons around the country have been willing to accommodate vegetarian needs and diets adhering to religious codes — by providing kosher or halal meals, for example — and that there was never a need to sue the corrections department in the past.

Part of the problem is that Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail, does not accommodate many long-term prisoners. “When you have a relatively stable population at a federal prison, whose [inmates] are likely to [stay for a long time], people are willing to accommodate,” Stern said. “Rikers is more like a motel than a penitentiary. People are in and out — bailed out, sent upstate or acquitted — and because of that, it’s logistically more difficult.”

A vegan menu poses a significantly greater problem for prisons than a merely vegetarian or kosher diet. Often, food that would be acceptable to a vegetarian is cooked in butter — a big no-no for the strict vegan.

If the vegans win their case, said Stern, prison officials might respond by dropping all meat and animal products from their menus. Most prison food is catered to satisfy the largest number of prisoners, so rather than make separate kosher, halal, vegetarian and vegan meals, the prisons could make the one meal that everybody can eat: the vegan meal.

“Providing those meals would be so simple and healthier for everybody,” Kerr said. “With vegan meals, instead of cooking in butter, cook in margarine — cook it without the fat. It’s healthier. This is not rocket science, it’s basic nutrition.”

Stern noted, “If they make everyone eat [vegan meals] — which I don’t think they would do — it would really make the vegans very unpopular.”

This would not upset anyone at PETA. “What’s a better time for a prisoner to get the taste of blood out of their system than when in jail?” Ronnen asked.

The three inmates have a history of involvement with animal rights. They were arrested for destruction of private property and criminal mischief when they were picketing outside the Manhattan apartment of a backer of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a laboratory that does testing on animals, in April 2002.

According to Kerr, the three have been surviving on peanut butter sandwiches, rice and boiled vegetables since they began serving out their terms.

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