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Florida Prison System Ordered to Provide Kosher Meals

Florida Prison System Ordered to Provide Kosher Meals

 

A U.S. District Court has ordered the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) to begin serving kosher meals to hundreds of Jewish prisoners, following legal challenges after the FDOC discontinued its kosher meal program in 2007. Additionally, an Islamic advocacy group has warned that it is prepared to file suit if the FDOC fails to provide halal food to Muslim prisoners.

The legal fight for kosher meals began in September 2010 when Florida state prisoner Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jew, filed a complaint in federal court under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), claiming the FDOC’s refusal to provide a kosher diet violated his right to practice his religion.

At the time, Florida prisons offered three main diets: 1) the master menu, 2) an alternate entree with a non-meat substitute and 3) vegan meals. None were kosher. The FDOC also provides therapeutic diets prescribed by a doctor and had previously eliminated all pork and pork products from prison meals.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) joined the fray in August 2012, filing a lawsuit against the FDOC that alleged the state was in violation of RLUIPA by failing to accommodate prisoners’ requests for kosher meals.

A federal district court granted the DOJ’s motion for a preliminary injunction on December 6, 2013, ordering Florida prison officials to begin serving kosher meals by July 1, 2014.

The state had previously announced it would begin providing kosher meals, and that a Religious Diet Program would start in April 2013 at the Union Correctional Institution, where Rich was housed, then be implemented statewide in September 2013. However, the rollout of the program was delayed.

Under the Religious Diet Program, the FDOC was to provide certified pre-packaged kosher foods to prisoners whose religious dietary needs cannot be satisfied by other meal options. Prisoners must first pass a religious sincerity test, which includes “‘eat[ing] from the alternate entree or vegan meal pattern’ for up to ninety days.”

The FDOC argued that its Religious Diet Program mooted the legal challenges related to kosher meals, but the Eleventh Circuit disagreed in a May 2013 decision in Rich’s case. The appellate court noted that the FDOC’s policy change came “late in the game,” and only after Rich had filed his brief and after the DOJ filed suit.

The Court of Appeals further noted the FDOC said it would initially implement the Religious Diet Program solely at the prison where Rich was housed, less than two weeks prior to oral argument in his appeal. “These facts,” wrote the Eleventh Circuit, “make it appear that the change in policy is ‘an attempt to manipulate jurisdiction.’”

The appellate court also said there was nothing to suggest the FDOC would not simply end the new program sometime in the future, as it ended the kosher meal program it had operated from 2004 to 2007. See: Rich v. FDOC, 716 F.3d 525 (11th Cir. 2013).

The kosher meal program that was offered by the FDOC starting in 2004 provided meals for prisoners deemed eligible through a screening process that measured the sincerity of their religious convictions. The program served prisoners of the Jewish, Islamic and Seventh Day Adventist faiths.

In April 2007, the FDOC commissioned a study group to review the program. The study group found several challenges associated with offering kosher meals, including adhering to the laws of kashruth, the set of Jewish dietary laws which prescribes religiously acceptable sources of food and methods of food preparation.

To be kosher, a food item must derive from religiously acceptable sources, be stored in kosher containers, be prepared in a particular manner and be served on tableware that has not contacted non-kosher food. In addition, meat and dairy products may not be mixed.

The study group also found that while there was an additional cost to provide kosher meals, the program was essential to allow prisoners to exercise their religious obligations. Citing in part the cost, the FDOC ended its system-wide kosher meal program in 2007 after receiving the study group’s report.

The DOJ’s lawsuit contends that the FDOC is capable of providing kosher meals to prisoners consistent with its compelling governmental interests. The DOJ noted that the federal Bureau of Prisons and 34 other states provide kosher food to prisoners.

“Most states do provide kosher diets, even Texas where there are about 25-30 Jewish inmates,” observed Eric Rassbach, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Of the remaining states that don’t, they tend not to be the ones with a big Jewish population.”

One of the FDOC’s arguments against implementing kosher meals was that many more prisoners than expected had requested the meals, and there was no way to adequately determine which prisoners are sincere and which are simply trying to take advantage of kosher food that is considered fresher and more palatable than regular prison fare.

While FDOC officials had expected around 300 prisoners to sign up for kosher meals, they received more than 4,400 requests following the district court’s December 2013 order granting the DOJ’s motion for a preliminary injunction, according to a news report in the Tampa Bay Times. “The last number I saw ... was 4,417,” FDOC Secretary Michael D. Crews told a state Senate committee. “Once they start having the meals, we could see the number balloon.”

Gary Friedman, who chairs Jewish Prisoner Services International, said kosher meals appeal to both Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners alike. “Inmates have a lot of paranoia about what they are being fed,” he stated. “If they are using prepackaged, sealed meals, the inmates believe they are safer.”

However, the cost of such meals is much higher. Crews told the Senate committee that three regular meals for state prisoners cost $1.52 per day, while only two kosher meals cost at least $4.00 per day.

The Eleventh Circuit said such concerns were unfounded in its May 2013 ruling in Rich’s appeal, holding that the state’s cost estimates were “unsupported” and that purported security concerns were “speculative.” Following remand, Rich voluntarily dismissed his lawsuit against the FDOC without prejudice on February 10, 2014.

An Islamic rights group, meanwhile, has said that if the FDOC is going to serve kosher meals to Jewish prisoners then the state also needs to provide halal food for Muslim prisoners.

“It is only fair and equitable that if Jewish inmates receive kosher food, as they should, that Muslim inmates have access to halal meals,” said Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in a January 2014 press release.

“We have been trying to amicably resolve these issues for 2½ years to avoid a lawsuit but will be taking legal action within the next year if they do not comply,” he stated.

The DOJ’s lawsuit against the FDOC, which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, remains pending; Florida officials have since appealed the district court’s preliminary injunction order. The FDOC moved to stay the order pending resolution of the appeal, but the motion was denied. See: United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:12-cv-22958.

Additional sources: Reuters, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.voiceofrussia.com

 

 

Related legal case

United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections