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Fight Over Kosher Prison Meals Drags On

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida has no plans to stop offering kosher meals to prisoners, but corrections officials don't want a federal judge telling them they have to keep serving up the special diet, which consists largely of sardines and peanut butter.

A federal appeals court will hear arguments Tuesday in a drawn-out challenge over the kosher meals. The state has spent nearly $500,000 in the lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice nearly four years ago, but legal wrangling over the religious meals has lasted more than a decade.

U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz last year ordered the Florida Department of Corrections to offer kosher meals and barred the agency from removing inmates from the religious dietary plan if prisoners buy non-kosher food from canteens or don't pick up the meals more than 10 percent of the time.

While they don't intend to do away with the kosher diet they've been forced to offer, corrections officials contend that a federal law --- the "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act" of 2000 --- law allows them to stop offering the meal plan if it gets too expensive.

Lawyers for the state also have argued that the cost of the program could pose a security threat and that the agency should be able to drop it if it chooses.

The agency has a large budget deficit, needs to spend money on capital improvements and has growing medical costs, Florida Assistant Attorney General Lisa Kuhlman Tietig wrote in a March court filing.

"Just because the Department (of Corrections) has made a policy decision at this time to provide a kosher diet in the face of these compelling budgetary issues does not mean that the department's interest in containing costs is not compelling, nor does it mean that RLUIPA (the federal law) mandates the department making such a decision in the face of all of the serious and compelling budgetary issues facing the department," Tietig wrote.

But Justice Department lawyers argued that the cost of the program doesn't let the state off the hook.

"In other words, 'prison officials cannot simply utter the magic words "security and costs" and as a result receive unlimited deference from (courts) charged with resolving these disputes,' " U.S. Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the civil rights division, and other Justice Department lawyers wrote on Feb. 24, quoting a separate case dealing with inmates and religious practices.

In August, Seitz permanently banned the department from using a "zero-tolerance" policy that removed inmates from the kosher-meal plan if they were caught eating regular meals or purchasing non-kosher food from the canteens, something corrections officials have already abandoned. And her order also bars prison officials from kicking inmates off the kosher plan if the prisoners miss 10 percent or more of their meals in a month, another policy the department says it has discontinued.

Keeping Seitz's permanent injunction in place "will ensure that prisoners with a sincere religious belief in keeping kosher will not, in the future, have to choose between not eating and violating their faith," the Justice Department's lawyers wrote.

The fight over kosher meals in Florida prisons, playing out Tuesday in Miami before a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has dragged on for more than a decade.

The department started offering kosher meals in 2004 to Jewish prisoners at 13 facilities and transferred inmates who were eligible for the meals to those institutions. The agency expanded the program to inmates of all faiths in 2006 but halted it the following year before reinstating it as a pilot project at a single prison in 2010, serving fewer than 20 prisoners.

A year after the Justice Department filed the lawsuit in 2012, the state again began serving kosher meals and promised to have the meals available to all inmates by last July.

Two years ago, prison officials switched to all-cold meals, consisting largely of peanut butter and sardines, served twice a day, prompting some inmates to complain that the unappetizing diet was aimed at discouraging prisoners from signing up for the kosher plan.

Corrections officials had argued that the cost of the kosher meals, an option not only for Jewish prisoners but for Muslim and Seventh-Day Adventists whose religions also proscribe dietary restrictions, could cost the state up to $12 million a year because the food cost nearly twice the amount of regular grub.

About 9,000 of the state's 100,000 prisoners are receiving kosher meals, according to department spokeswoman Michelle Glady. As of Monday, the state was spending $3.32 per inmate per day on kosher meals, compared to about $1.97 for the regular diet.

But Justice Department lawyers argued that the cost of the program is just a fraction of the corrections agency's nearly $23 million food service budget, and an even smaller slice of its overall $2.3 billion budget.

About 1 percent of prisoners in other states and the federal Bureau of Prisons participate in religious meal programs, while Florida's participation rate is more than 9 percent, according to court documents.

Lawyers who represented a Jewish prisoner who was denied a kosher diet questioned Florida's numbers.

"The issue here is that Florida is really the lone holdout among the major prison systems around the country that's really trying to say that they should be able to, at any time, stop taking care of the religious needs of its prisoners. And that's very dangerous," Becket Fund for Religious Liberty lawyer Daniel Blomberg said in a telephone interview Monday.

The Becket Fund represented inmate Bruce Rich, who dropped his case after Seitz gave corrections officials until mid-2015 to offer kosher meals to "all prisoners with a sincere religious basis for keeping kosher."

The Justice Department derided the state's $12 million estimated cost of the program as based on "a set of dubious assumptions regarding participation and pickup rates and questionable allocation of costs to the RDP (Religious Dietary Program) and savings to the mainline meal."

Florida's "worst-case scenario" estimate is 10 times more than what other states actually pay for kosher meals, according to court filings.

"At the same time they're providing (kosher meals) in a very unattractive, unappetizing way, but also claiming just massive participation rates, extraordinarily high participation rates compared to anywhere else in the country," Blomberg said. "And they're claiming extremely high levels of expense, again compared to anywhere else in the country. So it seems very suspect."

Providing the religious meals could reduce Florida's overall prison costs, Blomberg said, citing research showing that allowing inmates to practice their religion can help reduce recidivism.

"Prisoners aren't popular, and making provisions for prisoners can be unpopular. But the reality is that prisoners are human, and that denying their right to seek God strips away their human dignity," Blomberg said. "It goes to the issue of human dignity. It goes to the issue of every individual to be able to seek God as their faith requires. And then it goes to the significant benefits to society that are provided when you provide access to faith in prison."