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Washington DOC Settles Kosher Diet Complaints

Washington DOC Settles
Kosher Diet Complaints

by John E. Dannenberg

Washington state's Department of Corrections (DOC) settled two 42 USC § 1983 complaints from prisoners who "practiced" Judaism but were denied kosher diets. Both settlements accorded the diets; in the attorney-represented case fees and costs of $14,652 were awarded (plus $300 in expenses to the prisoner), while in the pro-per case, a $2,000 lump sum payout was made.

Cole Younger, incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Complex, Twin Rivers Unit, had in 1998 and again in 2000 requested a kosher diet on his Religious Preference Form. Contract Jewish Chaplain Gary Friedman denied the request because Younger was neither born Jewish, nor had he gone through a formal conversion. Younger exhausted administrative remedies and sued DOC officials and Friedman for violation of his religious freedom rights protected under the First Amendment and his equal protection rights protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.

In a stipulated motion for entry of judgment and permanent injunction, dismissing Friedman as a defendant, the United States District Court ordered that Younger - for as long as he desires a kosher diet for sincere religious reasons - be so provided in the same manner as done for Orthodox Jewish prisoners in the Washington DOC. This shall include both a daily kosher diet as well as supplemental diets required for Jewish religious holidays. The order further provided that Younger shall be provided equal access to Jewish religious activities and participation accorded other prisoners identified as Jewish.

Significantly, the court enjoined treating Younger in a lesser manner because either (1) his mother was not Jewish or (2) he had not gone through a formal rabbinical conversion. Thus, while Younger might not be "legally" Jewish under Judaic canon, he cannot be denied by the government to practice his sincerely held Jewish religious beliefs. For constitutional protection, he need only identify himself as Jewish under DOC Policy No. 560.200. The judgment was ordered placed in Younger's central file - to be enforced at any WA DOC facility at which he might be housed.

Attorney fees of $11,531 for 102.5 hours and costs of $3,121 were awarded counsel James Lobsenz. Additionally, $300 in postage/copying expenses were awarded to Younger, with a proviso that the funds not be attached from his prison trust account for any other legal cause. See Judgment and Permanent Injunction in Younger v. Lehman, USDC WD WA, No. C0 1-1139C (Oct. 4, 2002).

In the second case, Airway Heights Correctional Center prisoner Roland Pitrie had previously gained a preliminary injunction to give him his kosher diet in virtually identical circumstances as Younger's. The federal district court there observed that granting kosher meals to a prisoner who was Jewish by birth but did not practice the faith, while denying another prisoner who was not "formally" Jewish but practiced the faith, was a denial of equal protection rights. (See: PLN, Oct. 2002, p.18.)

The case came for settlement on November 4, 2002. The stipulated agreement awarded Pitrie $2,000 to be paid within 30 days - not subject to any attachments. Pitrie's kosher diet was ordered provided for as long as he "continues to express a desire to engage in the Jewish religion." DOC agreed to afford Pitrie the same religious services provided "other inmates considered to be Jewish" for the duration of his incarceration. Notably, the stipulation also ordered expungement of Pitrie's disciplinary record regarding hearings held on April 11, Aug. 14 and Oct. 2, 2002 - while the legal proceedings on the instant complaint were pending. See: Pitrie v. Bon, USDC ED WA, No. CS-01-004 WFN (2002).

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Related legal cases

Younger v. Lehman

Pitrie v. Bon