By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Florida prisoners whose religions require special diets have been trying to force corrections officials to feed them properly for at least 12 years.
Observant Jews, Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists all have variants of special diets that the prison system groups together under the heading “kosher,” although they are not identical. Muslims call their approved diet halal, while Seventh Day Adventists require adherence to kosher laws.
They met resistance to serving up grub that costs about $1.50 more a day per inmate than the standard fare. Thirty-five other states and the federal government provide kosher meals in prisons.
Hopes for ending the Florida dispute were stoked in 2016, when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the inmates. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit approved a permanent injunction requiring the Florida Department of Corrections to serve kosher meals to observant prisoners. The injunction had been granted in 2015 by Miami Senior U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz.
“The Secretary [Julie Jones] fails to explain why the Department cannot offer kosher meals when it offers vegan, medical, and therapeutic diets at similar marginal costs,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote in his decision for a three-judge panel.
Now court oversight of the kosher diet program, prison variety, appears to be dissolving like a sugar cube in hot tea.
This isn’t about grandma’s signature brisket, either. The menu is all cheap kosher foods such as peanut butter, crackers and cold beans. Plus, “an occasional piece of fruit,” Pryor quoted Jones as saying. To demonstrate the sincerity of their kosher commitment, inmates must pass a chapter-and-verse citation test.
The scope of the kosher meals program is difficult to determine. The DOJ estimated the future annual cost at $384,400; Jones’ comparable estimate was $12.3 million, according to Pryor’s opinion.
On Jan. 9, Seitz granted a request from former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and the U.S. Department of Justice to lift her injunction. That means the corrections department will no longer have the Miami court looking over its shoulder to ensure it’s honoring the kosher food order.
“Without the injunction, there’s no way to go back to court and tell the Department of Corrections, ‘You’re not doing what you’re supposed to do,’ ’’ said Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute. The institute tried to intervene in the case on behalf of Muslim prisoners, but Seitz ruled they were already adequately represented by the Justice Department.
Patrick Manderfield, a spokesman for the corrections department, said DOC and DOJ “requested the injunction be terminated due to FDC’s successful and continued adherence to the requirements of the court order. The judge determined the injunction was no longer needed, since the Department is providing a kosher diet in accordance with the court’s requirements.”
A DOJ spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The judge’s ruling still leaves religious prisoners some legal recourse if they’re denied kosher meals, according to Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor who has criticized the Florida kosher diet program as too restrictive. It should cover not only Orthodox Jews, but others who may be less strictly observant but no less sincere in their desire for a kosher diet, Feldman wrote in a commentary for Bloomberg.
In her Jan. 9 ruling, Seitz refused to grant another part of the parties’ request, that she vacate her original judgment. She gave this as her reason: “While Defendants’ current Religious Diet Program policy states that ‘it is the policy of the Department of Corrections to afford inmates a reasonable opportunity to observe their religious diet preferences . . . within the constraints of budget limitations and . . . security,’ the policy does not recognize that the Department of Corrections has a legal responsibility to do so.”
Manderfield did not respond to a question about how to interpret Seitz’s refusal to vacate her judgment.
An opportunity or threat?
Under Feldman’s interpretation, the judge was holding out the opportunity–or threat, depending on one’s viewpoint–to revisit the case if necessary.
“There’s still a declaratory judgment in place which states that they have a right to the food,” he said. “An inmate can return to court and ask for a new injunction requiring the prison to comply and the court would do that without having to go through a new set of legal findings about what the law requires.”
“My instinct is that the court would be highly sympathetic,” Feldman added.
One inmate who may be heard from again is Dwayne R. Smith of Florida State Prison in Raiford where he is serving a life sentence for murder. He gets kosher meals, but complained about the poor quality of the food in a Dec. 26, 2018 letter to the court. Smith said he had been served spoiled beans and rat-bitten peanut butter in what he called an attempt to discourage inmates from participating in the kosher food program.
Smith’s specific religion could not be determined. An inmate cannot simply choose a kosher meal plan, but must prove entitlement to it by explaining which religious text requires such a diet.
Manderfield responded that “We have a number of health and safety policies in place to ensure food is appropriately served. If there was an issue with a food item that staff was made aware of, the food would be replaced.”
Feldman said there’s no federal standard for
the quality of the kosher food, but that an observant inmate could argue he was
getting less caloric sustenance than other inmates. “It can’t be a starvation
diet, it has to be equivalent,” Feldman said.