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California Agrees to Provide Kosher Prison Diet Program

by John E. Dannenberg

The California Department of Corrections settled a prisoner civil rights complaint on November 12, 2003 by agreeing to accord approved kosher-observant Jewish prisoners a Kosher Diet Program (Program). The Program provides guidelines for foods used, for preparation methods, and for sanitation and safety. Additionally, it promulgates rules to qualify applicants, monitor their strict conformance to Jewish dietary laws at all times and provide for Program inclusion and expulsion. A Jewish Chaplain, under supervision of an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi, shall oversee the determination of all questions related to the Program's implementation.

Victor Wayne Cooper, a kosher-observant Jewish prisoner at California State Prison (CSP), Solano, sued prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 2000 (RLUIPA) in U.S. District Court (N.D. Cal.) to obtain wholesome meals consistent with the dietary laws and obligations of the Jewish faith. The complaint was fully settled by the "Settlement Agreement and Release of All Claims" (signed on November 12, 2003 by [former] CDC Director Edward S. Alameida) as to plaintiff Cooper. Significantly, the Settlement specifies that the Program shall also be made available to all other qualifying Solano prisoners within 60 days, and to all qualifying CDC prisoners within two years. Providing for court enforcement if necessary, the Settlement shall remain in effect so long as required under applicable law. Any injunction that might yet issue in this matter shall comply with the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(A).

The well-crafted twelve-page Settlement provides both a sincere consideration of kosher dietary needs of observant Jews as well as methods to weed out disingenuous "wannabes." The Program requires eligibility to be determined by an ordained Jewish rabbi. Each Program participant must sign a Kosher Diet Agreement, which provides specifically that (1) a change in religious diet may be declared only once per year; (2) a voluntary withdrawal from the Program shall be for a minimum of one year; (3) during meals, no food other than that served under the Program shall appear on the participant's food tray; (4) participants shall not collect kosher food items in their cell (other than kosher canteen items); (5) participants shall not purchase or consume any non-kosher food items (canteen purchases will be monitored); (6) no portion of Program-provided food may be shared with other non-participating prisoners; (7) participants shall not eat foods from the general diet that are not kosher; (8) one written warning will not terminate participation, but a second within 6 months will; (9) a rabbi shall determine such a violation, and the prisoner may confer with the rabbi before being removed from the Program for such cause.

For its part, CDC will institute a new Kosher Meal Provision Plan, initially at Solano, and elsewhere within two years. Foods used (1) shall be certified ("U," "K," "CRC" or other recognized symbol); (2) hot meals shall come from a certified kosher source; (3) margarine, mayonnaise and salad dressings shall be certified kosher, as shall be baked goods and whole fresh fruits and vegetables; (4) fresh milk in a sealed carton shall be served at breakfast. Preparation methods specify that (1) meals shall be assembled and heated by specially trained staff or prisoner workers who will be rabbi-certified as kosher food-preparers; (2) a secured, separate workstation shall be assigned exclusively for the assembly of kosher trays; (3) all equipment used in the Program shall be clearly labeled, National Sanitation Foundation approved and shall be used only in the preparation of kosher meals; (4) pre-packaged kosher food items shall be served with the seal intact; (5) heating shall be by micro-waving, steaming or re-hydrating; (6) said microwave may be used only for preparation of kosher foods.

Meal delivery shall be with disposable utensils and cups, served at normal meal times. Food temperatures shall be monitored with an approved thermometer kept in the Kosher Critical Toolbox. Kosher preparation equipment, containers, utensils and dishes are to be washed separately from non-kosher items. Detailed plans are listed for cleaning, drying and sink-sanitizing.

Meals shall consist of two hot meals and one bag lunch, with special provisions for fasting that attends designated Jewish observances. Program meals will have a four-week-cycle menu developed by a registered dietician, consistent with recommended daily allowances set by the Food and Nutrition Standard of the National Research Council.

This comprehensive agreement could serve as a template for other prison jurisdictions to follow both for its strict adherence to kosher dietary needs as well as for its trealistic expectations of participants. Cooper was represented by San Francisco attorneys Shinyung Oh of Holme Roberts & Owen and Heather B. Nolan of Morrison & Foerster. See: Cooper v. State of California, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal., San Francisco Division, Case No. CO2-3712 JSW, Settlement Agreement and Release of All Claims, November 12, 2003.

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Related legal case

Cooper v. State of California