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Jewish Michigan Prisoners Win Injunction for Religious Sabbath and Holiday Meals

An October 2019 settlement in this class action lawsuit required MDOC to provide Jewish prisoners with kosher meals. The lead plaintiffs were Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin, both of whom were raised Jewish and identified as same upon entering MDOC.

The court held a bench trial on the issue of Ackerman and Shaykin’s belief that they “consume meat and dairy products on the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shavuot.” After hearing the evidence, the court had “no trouble” finding these were sincerely held beliefs, and that the quantity of meat and dairy the plaintiffs consume must be part of a “‘meal’ — ‘a joyful meal.’”

The court also was “convinced that it must accept plaintiffs’ assertion that eating cheesecake on Shavuot is a Jewish ritual” that must be followed to observe the holiday properly.”

MDOC argued that it makes meat and dairy items available for sale in the prison store. The court rejected that argument for several reasons. “First, the serving sizes of the items sold are insufficient to constitute a meal. Second, prison policies prohibit Plaintiffs from bringing the items into the chow hall and Jewish ‘law requires [them] to have a [Sabbath or holiday] meal, not to have a meal and then supplement it later at some other time.’”

It also found the plaintiffs could not purchase meat and dairy products in quantities needed to constitute a Sabbath or holiday meal. Most of the items in the prison store are snack items, and they are expensive. For instance, 4.32 ounces of tuna costs $4.42 and powdered milk is $3.57 for a 10-ounce pouch. Ackerman testified it would cost $784 annually for two Sabbath meals and four designated holidays. Shaykin testified his prison job pays him $416.10 a year.

MDOC pointed to the plaintiffs’ coffee purchases to dispute their asserted inability to pay for kosher commissary items. It argued that if they can afford those purchases, they could buy the meat and dairy items for Sabbath and holiday meals. The court rejected that argument.

While bartering is a violation of prison rules, it was clear the plaintiffs used coffee to buy goods from other prisoners in between their allowed purchases at the prison store. Thus, the coffee was not for their own consumption and was a “means for Plaintiffs to obtain other necessities.”

Even if the plaintiffs “forewent their coffee purchases and used the same funds to purchase kosher meat and dairy products on the Sabbath and designated Jewish holidays,” this would not relieve MDOC of its liability for failing to provide them with kosher meals. As such, MDOC’s ability to pay argument was rejected.

MDOC then argued it “has a compelling governmental interest in the costly and orderly administration of prisoner meals.” Meals for the general population cost MDOC $2.85 per meal and $2.97 for each vegan meal. It said that it would add an additional $10,000 annually to provide meat and dairy products on the Sabbath and four holidays to the system’s 85 Jewish prisoners on a religious diet.

The court found this was de minimis in light of MDOC’s $39 million food budget. It said there was not a compelling government interest justifying the burden placed on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. MDOC also had the alternative of allowing groups like the Aleph Institute to donate kosher and dairy products for prisoners, as it used to allow and discontinued without explanation. That MDOC argued the court’s ruling in plaintiffs’ favor would open the door for requests from 28 recognized religions surprised the court, for “other courts routinely dismiss it out of hand.”

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Related legal case

Ackerman v. Washington