Kosher Food for Prisoners: A Question of Money?


Fewer than 1% of inmates request kosher meals. (San Quentin Prison, California)

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

Last week, an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate ended his four-year-old lawsuit seeking a kosher diet, thanks to a recent court ruling requiring Florida to provide all Jewish prison inmates with a kosher diet.

This case is one of several that prison inmates and the U.S. Department of Justice have brought in the last few years, where state prisons have withheld the option of kosher meals for Jewish inmates.  

The cases are brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (commonly referred to as RLUIPA) — the federal law that seeks to protect the right of inmates and other institutionalized persons to free exercise of religious practices. However, some state prison systems are slow to learn.

Providing kosher food for inmates is reported to about double the cost of the usual prison diet: an increase of between $4 and $5 per day for each inmate, according to the prisons. However, very few inmates (typically fewer than 1%) request kosher meals, according to the experience reported in the court decisions.

The courts therefore reject claims by the prisons that the cost of providing kosher food is burdensome. But the details of the cases suggest that there is more than cost at issue.

More after the jump.
Various prison systems have put up different bars to deter inmates from securing kosher meals:

  • One prison requires the inmate to pass a test of knowledge of the rules of kashrut;
  • another prison admits an inmate to the kosher food program, but removes him if he eats any “non-kosher” food (although the prison management does not appear to have enough knowledge to judge that question);
  • yet another prison’s management examines the inmate’s historic practices and reaches its own determination of the “sincerity” of the inmate’s beliefs;
  • and some prisons offer inmates the ability to purchase kosher food at their own expense.

In recent cases, the Justice Department and Jewish prisoners have prevailed over the state prison officials as to all of these arguments and stratagems. Yet, questions will continue to arise under RLUIPA, and the earlier-related Religious Freedom Restoration Act (familiarly known as RFRA).  

These statutes legislate religious accommodation — specifically, relief from some legal requirement of general application, where that relief is practical. Simple? Not at all.

The range of circumstances that give rise to RFRA and RLUIPA claims is great and still growing (most recently in the form of dozens of challenges to the Affordable Care Act). The questions of what constitutes a sincere religious belief, and more importantly, what is a substantial burden on religious practice, draw the courts into an unfamiliar territory.  

Each accommodation ordered by a court, and looked at differently, is a small establishment of one religion over all others. So the courts assiduously avoid “entanglement” by becoming involved in deciding religious issues, except for practice mandated under these two statutes.

The author is a member of the Church-State Committee of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, an organization which frequently participates in religious liberty cases as amicus curiae (“friend of the court”), and a director of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.