Rikers Island Inmates Seek Different Menu Behind Bars

By Max Gross

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.