The Miami Herald reported today the story of Ross Lawson. He’s currently serving time in Florida State Prison for a list of unsavory offenses, including armed robbery and carjacking, and “felony causing bodily injury”. Turned on to Orthodox Judaism in 1997 by a rabbi from Surfside, FL shortly before being sentenced to life in state prison, Mr. Lawson now is Torah-observant and his mother credits Torah with saving his life.
Mr. Lawson has had his requests to keep his beard and for kosher food repeatedly turned down by the prison, and is resorting to the courts for redress. His lawsuit comes in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Cutter v. Wilkinson, which upheld a 2000 federal law stating basically that:
States that receive federal money must accommodate prisoners’ religious beliefs in such matters as special haircuts or meals, unless wardens can show that the government has a compelling reason not to, the law says.
Now obviously the court’s decision incensed the foaming neo-cons who opined that liberals “seem intent on providing more confort(sic) to the criminals than normal people are allowed on the outside.” “Normal” people can get kosher food, however.
Mr. Lawson is not attempting to have his sentence shortened, commuted or suspended due to his adoption of traditional religion. He only wants his kosher meals, and to keep his beard. While the “compelling reason” for not allowing him to have a beard is:
The beard is a security, health and safety problem, Chaplain Alex Taylor, chaplaincy services administrator for FDOC explained.
Orthodox men are supposed to shave with clippers, not razors. During certain periods, men are also to refrain from cutting their hair or beards. ”A beard provides a convenient hiding place to conceal small items,” Taylor said. “This can be expensive because it takes more time to search a bearded inmate.”
Security and safety? OK, this is a prison, such concerns are quite germane and very sensible. However, the kosher food has caused more of a debate:
Premade, authentic kosher meals are expensive — and must be supplemented with items such as fruit and diary, bringing the cost to $15 a day compared with the $2.57 it costs to feed an inmate on traditional or JDAP diets, according to Kathleen Fuhrman, nutritional program manager for the state’s prison system.
But Derek L. Gaubatz, director of litigation for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, said the state’s costs are exaggerated.
”There are much cheaper ways to do it,” said Gaubatz. He said kosher catering companies that work with other state prisons can provide three full meals for $7 a day per person.
Air Force Lt. Col. Ira Flax, a rabbi who has worked as a consultant for the Florida Department of Corrections, disagreed with Gaubatz. ”The FDOC has bent over backwards to meet the spiritual and dietary needs of a diverse Jewish population,” Flax wrote in a prepared statement. ”The bottom line for the department: It would be more expensive,” added Chaplain Alex Taylor.
Here’s why I agree with Mr. Gaubatz: Anyone who has worked in State government knows, every contract is preceded by a call for bids. The lowest bidder gets the contract. Obviously $15-a-day, Inc. is going to be undercut by $7-a-day, LLC.
In addition, a “JDAP diet” is where the prison kitchen “separates meat and dairy” but not to the “strict standards of a kosher kitchen.” I can’t imagine they care that much.
This is not a new dispute. Oklahoma inmates were ruled as being entitled to kosher meals in 2005, following Colorado’s 2004 lead. Maryland has been serving kosher food in prisons since the 90s. New York has minyanim. The Aleph Institute is a prison outreach organization for Jews operating nationwide since the 80s.
Just like The First Amendment center said, religious freedom is an inalienable right of every human being, regardless of what their rap sheet says. We already disenfranchise felons permanently, at least one should always have access to G-d. From the Muslim with his prayer oil to the Catholic clutching a rosary, religious freedom should never be impinged upon, either on the inside or outside.