Identity, Justice, Religion

Prisoner sues for kosher food

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.

11 thoughts on “Prisoner sues for kosher food

  1. When I read the line; “The FDOC has bent over backwards to meet the spiritual and dietary needs of a diverse Jewish population,’’ it made me wonder what exactly the stats ARE on Jewish prisoners in the US. Only because when I think of a PRISONER who commited a CRIME demanding certain rights be given to him, it makes me wonder how serious he is about his religon in the first place. I’m not trying to be judemental, but how observant can a person be if they commit a crime serious enough to be imprisoned? I tend to have more conservative views when it comes to crime and punishment as I am going into law enforcement myself, but please…I am open to other opinions. I’m not saying religious prisoners shouldn’t recieve any rights, but they ARE being punished. Should our taxes really go to make them comfortable?

  2. Miss Y,
    the guy wants to grow a beard and eat kosher food. It’s not like he’s asking for daily oil rubdowns and pina coladas. He may or may not be sincere in his observance, what special perk to these requests really amount to? I agree that prisoners are serving time for crime, and it must be remembered that this is punishment. But do we want to discourage those from taking on practices that might lead to them being better citizens?

  3. You’re right. I agree with you. A beard and kosher food don’t seem like that big of a deal. It’s not that this specific case is bothering me, but the attention the prisoner is getting with this will no doubt cause a rift in the system and possibly give other prisoners ideas of new found religious rights-? I’m trying to look at the big picture here. If you are a dedicated Jew and follow Halaka, you wont be imprisoned in the first place. If you ARE imprisoned, maybe you should have to prove yourself for a certain amount of time before being alloted special privlages. I mean look at converts, they are supposed to live their lives as Jews during the process but always break certain rules until they are official. Look, you broke a rule, you commited a crime, you need to prove yourself again, to G-d and to the state. You can’t expect the prison system to make allowances for you just because you want them. You should have to earn them. I’m all for prisoners gaining knowledge and faith, but let’s face it….you do the crime, you do the time.

  4. It seems to me it is a traditional value that prisoners find solace and rehabilitation through religion. Some are sincere and some are not, but more than one person has repented and even done good works while in prison. Jews repent trhough deeds, not solely through faith confessions—being a penitent Jew means, among other things, doing everything possible to try to keep kosher, and that is what this prisoner is doing. I don’t know if he is sincere, but I do know that his request makes sense to me.
    There’s a reason why we allow a chaplain into the prison before we (G-d forbid, and I really mean G=d forbid) execute someone, even someone who has done something heinous. We may disagree a great deal about the reasons and means for punishment, but it’s a fundamental principle in our society that even the condemned are entitled to spiritual comfort. It seems to me that kashrut is a fundamental spiritual comfort for Jews. While visits to a local synagogue (as sometimes happens in low-security prisons), prison classes etc., should certainly be regarded as a privilege for well-behaved prisoners, basic kashrut needs, in my view, should not.

  5. I don’t think that it’s true that someone who is in prison, must not be religious because they committed a crime.
    (a) Some people are wrongly imprisoned.
    (b) There are lots of mentally ill people in prison for crimes that they did committ but might not be completely responsible for.
    Even if someone did break halakha by committing a crime and is in prison, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to keep halakha. None of us is perfect and we maintain the right to practice religion. Someone could argue that anyone who breaks halakha doesn’t have the right to ask for special treatment in order to keep other halakhot but that would exclude everyone from the beginning.
    Interestingly, prison isn’t a punishment in Jewish law (as far as I know). As an institution it seems natural to us but it’s not the only way of dealing with crime. I don’t think being in prison has any formal status in halakha and I’m sure that if it did, it wouldn’t say not to practice further halakhot. I’m also not sure that prison is the best way of dealing with crime. But that’s another issue.

  6. Ok, so this guy committed a number of serious crimes and was sent to prison.
    Prison is the sentence, the loss of liberty.
    What more than a few people never realize about that is that it intrinsically implies not only having your wings curtailed, not being able to leave when you want, but having your whole day schedule controlled by others, infantilized as it were.
    When and what you eat, when you may shower amd when not, what to wear, when to sleep etc.
    Try, just for a few seconds to imagine it.
    That by itself is punish ment.
    but there is worse, you’re forced to live, often in the same room, and share almost all of your day AND night time, with people you’d never ever want to be with.
    Imagine, just for a few minutes, to have to live that way.
    Prison by itself is a horrid punishment. But truly, this guy perhaps is not too nice and probably all of us want to be protected, even for just a while, from him and his likes.
    It appears our society needs it prisons.
    Yet prison as such is a harsh punishment, more than enough. No need to go on and punish him even more within prison.
    On the assumption some people “deserve” prison and society has a right to protect itself against certain people, prisons have become necessary institutions.
    I believe it is our moral duty, to make the prisons as humane as possiblelest the sentence becomes “cruel and unusual”.
    Is this inmate’s turn to religion sincere?
    Who are we to judge? That’s between him and his conscience and -assuming it/he/she exists – g-d.
    Having a beard and eating kosher food are basics. why not recognize that?

  7. The law in question is called RLUIPA – Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It specfically flips the burden in a case like this from the inmate to the correctional facility. There needs to be a compelling reason for the prison not to accomodate an inmate’s request to have a beard and eat kosher meals. Based on the quotes from the state prison, they are not meeting that burden. Congress has determined that mere inconvenience is not a sufficient enough basis upon which to deny religious practice.

  8. “If you are a dedicated Jew and follow Halaka, you wont be imprisoned in the first place.” That’s not really true, is it? What does Halaka say about possessing marijuana?

  9. Well I believe that Halakha says something about upholding laws? As for your example of possessing marijuana, if you live in America and possess over a certain amount you are not upholding the law. I personally do not belive in the current prison terms for drug use, but I don’t believe this particular prisoner was incarcerated for drug possession. I remember something about armed robbery and carjacking. Reguardless, when I think of a good practicing Jew I also think of a law abiding person. I very strongly agree with religious freedom and infact am fighting for it right now at my job so that I cannot be forced to work on Saturdays! Trust me, my point is not to say prisoners are scum and shouldn’t have any rights, I was asking a general question about the validity of said prisoner’s request. I was making a point that hypocrites shouldn’t be rewarded. Bold statement, yes, but I deal with criminals too much to know that more often than not their sincerity is false. That said, every situation is differnt and there DO need to be certain rights even for prisoners.

  10. RLUIPA wasn’t struck down – that was an earlier version of the law that applied the protections of RLUIPA to state and federal governments.
    What’s really funny about the foaming neo-con is that the Republican party, as I recall, had quite a bit to do with getting these laws to protect religion pushed through….
    — Dov

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