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Florida Prisons Want To Slash Kosher Offerings; Justice Department Says It Would Be Illegal

| May 22, 2014

Even the knives used in the kosher slaughtering of animals must follow specific guidelines, such as the square, not pointed, top, and the sharpness of the blade. (News21-National)

Even the knives used in the kosher slaughtering of animals must follow specific guidelines, such as the square, not pointed, top, and the sharpness of the blade. (News21-National)

Florida corrections officials and the federal government fired the latest salvos this week in a drawn-out battle over whether the state is required to serve kosher meals to inmates.

The Department of Corrections and the U.S. Department of Justice filed motions for summary judgment in the federal court case, with arguments centering on the federal “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act” law.

The law, which went into effect in 2000, prohibits the state from imposing a “substantial burden” on an inmate’s religious exercise, unless it can prove that the restriction furthers a “compelling government interest” and is “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.

The Justice Department sued the state over the kosher meals almost two years ago in the latest part of a decade-long court battle concerning the religious diets. In December, U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz gave the agency until July 1 to offer kosher meals to “all prisoners with a sincere religious basis for keeping kosher.”

The state had argued that providing kosher meals is prohibitively expensive and poses a security risk because inmates would have to be transferred to facilities that either had kosher kitchens or that served the meals. Seitz rejected those arguments in her December ruling.

In a brief filed Monday, lawyers for the Department of Corrections argued that the law allows Florida to scrap the kosher meals because of the financial burden placed on the “cash-strapped agency.” The state has spent more than $200,000 on the lawsuit so far.

Congress intended the federal law “to be applied with great sensitivity to a state’s limited resources and the need to control its costs,” Florida Assistant Attorney General Lisa Kuhlman Tietig wrote.

But Justice Department lawyers argued that the state is required to provide the meals “to protect the religious freedom of prisoners” and can afford to do so.

“Defendants’ ability to pay for religious diets is further highlighted by their expenditures on a variety of pro-social programs. … Many of these programs, including plumbing technology courses, are not legally required,” the lawyers wrote.

The state and the Justice Department are also at odds on how much it will cost to feed prisoners who sign up for the religious meals, an option not only for Jewish prisoners, but for Muslim and Seventh-Day Adventists, whose religions also prescribe dietary restrictions.

About 8,400 of the state’s approximately 100,000 inmates have signed up for the meals and will cost the state an extra $21 million, or the equivalent of 420 workers, according to the corrections department, which ran a $45 million budget deficit last year.


“Bills must be paid. Money must be found to pay them. Sometimes, paying them means foregoing other costs. In the case of a court, that might mean foregoing Westlaw time or salaries for marshals or law clerks. For a prison system, it might mean roofs for prisons and salaries for security staff,” Tietig wrote.

But lawyers for the Justice Department argued that agency has inflated the costs, saying that the current participation rate will likely decline because the “Cadillac” hot boxed-meal plan originally offered was recently replaced by cold meals. Corrections officials introduced a revised diet consisting primarily of peanut butter, sardines and cabbage in March. This month, the agency asked Seitz to give them an extra year to offer the meals at all prisons.

After an initial surge in those seeking the religious diet abates, Florida’s participation rate will likely mirror the 1 percent of federal prisoners who receive the kosher meals, the Justice Department lawyers wrote. That would cost about $730,000 per year, “a tiny fraction of Defendant’s $2.3 billion budget,” they wrote. At least 32 other states, including New York and California, offer kosher diets to prisoners.

But the state argued that, even if just 1.5 to 2 percent of the total prison population joined the program, the department would spend up to $1.7 million a year, not including extra costs for disposable utensils and plates.

“For a cash-strapped agency like the Department of Corrections, these amounts are not a ‘relatively minor expense,’ given other crucial needs that compete for funds,” Tietig wrote.

Florida’s “10 percent” rule, which suspends prisoners from the kosher diet if they fail to eat at least 90 percent of the available meals, is unlawful, the Justice Department also argued. The attendance rate for inmates eating the less-expensive, “main line” diet is only 85 percent, and the department “relies on this 15 percent no-show rate to meet its budgetary goals,” the lawyers wrote.

“Requiring prisoners on the more-expensive kosher diet option to show up for a higher percentage of meals than prisoners on the less-expensive main line is not a method to prevent waste — let alone the least-restrictive means of doing so,” they wrote.

A trial in the case is slated for Aug. 25, but Seitz could rule on the motions instead.

–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida

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21 Responses for “Florida Prisons Want To Slash Kosher Offerings; Justice Department Says It Would Be Illegal”

  1. Outsider says:

    It’s “only” costing an extra $750,000 for these meals. Well, guess what? Some poor sap like me has to pay for these special privileges. I thought you sent people to jail to deprive them of their freedom as punishment for their criminal actions. What will be next? Free transgender operations for prisoners?

    • Anonymous says:

      @Outsider. I agree with your view. No religion promotes criminal activity. NO religious criminal should have special treatment while incarcerated. The people who are in jails or prison lost any right They committed a crime and by doing so broke their religious laws. No true religion promotes illegal activity. They broke their religious ties when they broke the law. NO special treatments!

    • Max Awesomeness says:

      If you want prisoners to better themselves and possibly find faith in prison, you need to support the dietary restrictions that come attached to said faith.

    • bill says:

      Some already get free transgender operations!!! This all is just dumb if one wants to live by their religious rules then don’t break the law!!. prisoner’s should be allowed to pray as they see it BUT the taxpayer should not pay for things like a special diet unless its medically necessary.

    • Steve Wolfe says:

      Pretty clear that the justice in the title, “Justice Department” does not apply to law-abiding tax payers. While it is worthy to maintain a standard in our prisons that exceeds the third world versions there does appear tobe a margin in that standard that we could narrow a bit. I would like to knownthe recidivism rate for Joe Arpio’s approach to prison. In his version the comforts are stripped away and the experience is intended to discourage further acts of crime. Prisoners must raise some of their own food. They live outdoors in tents in the Arizona heat. Meals are very simple. Complaints are often answered by comparing their condition to that of American volunteer military troops living in similar conditions but without being fired upon. I wonder how many come back to that.

      • Nancy N. says:

        You want to know the recidivism rate of Joe Arpaio’s approach to prison? (which is actually jail in his case – very important distinction because he’s doing it to mostly inmates who have not been convicted of anything as they are in pre-trial detention awaiting their turn in court). Just look at Florida DOC, which is actually not far off of Joe’s “method”. In many ways it is actually worse. There are no “comforts”. They don’t live in canvas tents but they mostly live in block buildings that are effectively tents as they are not sealed for the weather and there is no A/C and barely any heat. When it is 20 degrees out inmates are given a “jacket” to wear that is the equivalent of a sweatshirt as their warmth, and a single thin blanket to sleep under. Florida DOC prisoners take part in extensive farm programs that raise millions of pounds of food every year, and also get up at 4am every day to work as slave labor on work crews for the Florida Dept of Transportation and other local gov’t entities, in addition to providing labor to build and maintain DOC facilities and run them (cleaning, laundry, food service, etc). You want “simple” meals? The meals at Florida DOC are “simple” to the point of being completely inedible. Most inmates are underweight from starvation and the hard physical labor. Epidemics of gastro illnesses are common in the camps, as are skin diseases caused by parasites. Inmates regularly die from lack of medical care. And I’m laughing at the answer that you say complaints get from Joe Arpaio.Is that all? Complaining at FL DOC will get you locked up in solitary and beaten.

        Joe Arpaio may make a good soundbite, and he may know how to play the media to get publicity, but he isn’t doing much anybody else isn’t. He’s just an egotistical maniac who likes to humiliate people on national TV to make himself feel big.

        • Steve Wolfe says:

          If your description is accurate then why are you the only one declaring it? I think I’ll defer to my deputy friends on that. Now turn those damned violins off!

          • Nancy N. says:

            Every single thing I’ve said is true. Plenty of people are talking about it if you know where to look but no one wants to hear it because the complaints mostly come from inmates and their loved ones. Media ignores the complaints until they reach the level of criminal investigation (which they have on several occasions recently involving the deaths of inmates at the hands of guards and because of medical negligence), but even then it gets a few local headlines in the area where the facility is and then disappears. Because the general public’s attitude is that inmates deserve whatever they get – it’s what made Joe Arpaio a superstar. In other words, it’s attitudes like YOURS that keep this information from seeing the light of day. You can’t say “I don’t want to hear this” and then wonder why you aren’t hearing it.

            And with all due respect to your deputy friends, unless they’ve been inside a state DOC facility and spent some time observing and talked honestly without fear of retribution to the people who live there, a Sheriff’s Deputy would have no idea what goes on inside a state prison. Sheriff’s deputies have no reason to go inside a state DOC facility as part of their job. An occasional deputy who transports a prisoner for a court date will only get as far as a camp’s airlock, not actually into the camp’s compound. They might know about local jail conditions in the county where they work, but that is totally different than state DOC.

            If you still don’t believe me, many of the things that I’ve told you – like the lack of A/C, the farm program and work crews, and the types of buildings that DOC inmates live in – can be verified on the FL Department of Corrections’ own website. Also watch the frequent postings for visitation closures at camps – that is almost always because a camp is quarantined due to a widespread gastro virus.

            • Steve Wolfe says:

              I’m flattered that once again MY attitude has the power to shape public policy. But what have YOU done with your awareness of the situation? I’ll let you carry the ball since you are so passionate about it. Our jail is about to become more accommodating than the Sheriff’s digs. Six million for law breakers, 1.23 million for the zombie movie set for the Sheriff. Our taxes, directed by people far smarter than US have fixed the issue locally. Time for a holiday beer. Join me?

              • Nancy N. says:

                The reality of the situation is that the people with the most awareness of the situation – inmates and their families – are limited in their ability to speak out by the very real threat of retribution from the DOC. Even those who complain via internal DOC channels, not embarrassing the DOC publicly, frequently face consequences for daring to speak up.

  2. Everyone knows this is no where says:

    Oy! I’ll have the bagel and lox for brunch and the brisket for dinner!

  3. Fixin up says:

    @ Max Awesomeness, I ask you this… Did they use a Kosher weapon when they committed their crime? Was their knife square at the tip? Were their hands clean when they committed the crime in which they are sentenced for? The Jewish religion still has the 10 Commandments and correct me if I am wrong, but, Thou Shall Not Steal, Thou Shall Not Kill, Though Shall Not Lie… Need I continue? Thou shall not pay for the crimes of another.

    • Max Awesomeness says:

      Read my post. I said nothing about their faith before they went to prison.

    • Nancy N. says:

      Many inmates, with the help of prison chaplains and missionaries, turn to religion behind bars as a tool to rebuild their lives. For most FL DOC inmates, it’s the only real rehabilitative program that they are ever given access to.

      Also, you should note that according to some study estimates by groups like the Innocence Project, as many as 5-7% of inmates behind bars in prisons are actually innocent.

  4. m&m says:

    When you end up in prison you’ve lost all your rights. You’re lucky you’re fed at all..

  5. Heads all empty and I don't care says:

    One could shave with one of those knives! Ever since the goyum took over Strathmore, I have not had a good smoked sable fix. Make mine the smoked fish platter, heavy on the lox and sable and light on the whitefish. There is not a really good Jewish style deli within driving distance of Palm Coast now. This is a good Jewish style deli: http://www.jacksdeliandrestaurant.com/
    We need this in Palm Coast now. We’ll be visiting Jack’s soon but we need this here now. Can the DOC accommodate? No? Oh, well. Just the smoked fish platter then. Thanks.

  6. Ed says:

    Nancy N, you are right on every point you make. However I have a good source who predicts changes coming in the FL DOC, sooner rather than later. Think of it like this: for every incarcerated individual, there is at the very least one or two family members who are eligible to vote. More than likely, when you count friends and other relatives, it’s more like 10 eligible voters for every person incarcerated. That makes for a strong lobbying voice that is not so easily silenced. There are going to be rallies going on – peaceful ones – in Tallahassee and in front of all the CI’s in the State. Election time is drawing near. Things Change.

  7. anon says:

    Why does the United States of America have nearly 800 citizens per capita, more than any other country in the world, incarcerated? Are we the most evil and violent nation in the world? I agree with Ed. Voters can change this. We can elect to spend our tax dollars on education rather than incarceration. And while we’re on the subject, I applaud the efforts of the prevention campaigns, especially the anti-bullying awareness that’s all over the media right now, but bullying does not exist only in childhood and in elementary, middle and high school. It exists in the workplace, in domestic situations, and probably more than anywhere, in our nations prisons. You’d think guards/corrections officers would set an example, be role models for correct behavior for the inmates, but instead the corrections officers are worse and more dangerous and violent than the inmates.

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