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California Muslim Prisoner Afforded Access to Kosher Diet Pending Implementation of “Religious Meat Alternate Program”

by Mike Brodheim

In February 2010, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) entered into a stipulated settlement agreement with Muslim prisoner Askia Ashanti, providing him with access to CDCR’s Jewish Kosher Diet Program pending the prison system’s implementation of a “Religious Meat Alternate Program” (RMAP) consistent with Muslim dietary practices.

As part of the settlement agreement, the CDCR agreed to pay $5,000 to Ashanti’s counsel for attorney fees incurred in representing Ashanti, who initially filed suit pro se. The CDCR made no admission of liability as part of the settlement agreement.

Ashanti had filed a lawsuit in 2007, alleging pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that he had been denied a halal diet required by the tenets of his Islamic faith in violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq.

He also alleged that CDCR officials had violated his constitutional rights, as well as RLUIPA, by failing to provide an interfaith worship facility appropriate for Muslims.
One day after entering into the settlement agreement, the CDCR amended its rulebook and added the “Religious Meat Alternate Program” as Section 3054.3 to Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations.

Ashanti said his complaint was one of several lawsuits brought by Muslim prisoners to address issues related to their exercise of religious rights.

Yet nine months after the stipulated settlement, on November 5, 2010, Ashanti moved the district court for permission to withdraw from the voluntary dismissal of the case. Ashanti asserted that the CDCR had altered the terms of the understanding of the agreement only one month after the settlement, by providing a halal meal only for dinner while breakfast and lunch consisted of a vegetarian “no-meat” diet rather than halal meals. This contrasted with the prison system’s Jewish Kosher Diet Program, which provided three kosher meals per day.

According to CDCR’s own regulations, Ashanti’s description was accurate. DOM Chapter 5, Article 51 (Food Service), Section 54080.14, revised July 13, 2010, states that “The RMAP is only offered at the dinner meal. Inmate participants in the RMAP shall receive the vegetarian option at breakfast and lunch.”

However, the court denied Ashanti’s request to withdraw from the stipulated settlement on June 8, 2011, finding the case had been dismissed with prejudice and the court therefore lacked jurisdiction to act on any further motions. See: Ashanti v. Tilton, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:07-cv-00807-MCE-GGH.

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Related legal case

Ashanti v. Tilton