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Prisons Grapple With Costs as Non-Jewish Inmates Eat Kosher

April 30, 2012 6:08 pm Leave a comment By  | Via  
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Keeping Kosher: Rabbi Sholom Lipskar wraps tefillin with a prisoner in a Florida jail. (Photo courtesy of Aleph Institute via The Jewish Daily Forward)

The popularity of a kosher diet among non-Jewish inmates in prisons across the country is costing taxpayers millions of dollars, The Jewish Daily Forward reports. Only a sixth of the 24,000 inmates who eat kosher are Jewish, and kosher meals cost more than double the normal prison meal. To address the problem, some prisons are eliminating the specialized meals, and others are discussing how to restrict the specialized diet to Jews, reports Naomi Zeveloff.

“We want them to be very careful about who they give kosher food to,” said Menachem Katz, director of prison and military outreach at the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-affiliated social services group. “We don’t want them to give kosher food to every Tom, Dick and Harry if they say they are Jewish.”

“It is a major problem, and it creates so much animosity” from prison officials, said Gary Friedman, founder of Jewish Prisoner Services International. Friedman provided estimates based on visits to prisons around the country.

The popularity of kosher food among non-Jewish inmates is one reason that many prisons around the country are seeking to curtail or change their Jewish dietary programs. But advocates for Jewish inmates say that prisons could easily solve this problem by limiting kosher food to Jews.

“They want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Katz said. “Rather than get into the nitty-gritty, they say, ‘Let’s just destroy the whole thing.’”

It’s easy to see why kosher meals — which cost $2.33 per meal in the federal prison system, compared to $0.99 for standard rations — would be more appealing.

Kosher food is a hot commodity in prisons for a number of reasons. Some prisoners simply think it tastes better; many others believe it is safer than standard-issue prison fare, according to prison chaplains and advocates. Kosher food also often comes prepackaged, making it easy to trade or sell among inmates.

Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, kosher or halal food is provided to any inmate who requests it and shows a “sincerely held” religious belief. But it’s not so simple, The Forward reported.

The law is vague about what constitutes a sincere belief. Last year, there were more than 60 suits filed around the country by inmates claiming they were unfairly barred from following a kosher diet in prison, according to the Religion Clause blog, which tracks freedom of religion cases in prisons. About 40 of these were dismissed. [Gary] Friedman, of Jewish Prisoner Services International, has himself been sued by inmates who claim they were denied kosher food by his organization, which formerly contracted with the Washington State Department of Corrections to provide religious services to inmates.

The law “leaves room for individuals to disagree about what religions require,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The high cost of religion-specific food has led some prisons to find alternatives to religious dietary programs.

The cost of kosher and halal foods led prison officials in the Indiana Department of Correction to drop their religious dietary programs altogether in 2009, serving those inmates a vegan diet instead. With budgets tight and the money spent on kosher and halal meals doubling every month, an official said the state had little choice.

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