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Controversy Over Kosher Meals In Florida Prisons

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- Peanut butter, sardines and cabbage may be healthy options for some scrupulous dieters.

But Florida prison inmates whose kosher meals are comprised primarily of those three staples served cold seven days a week say the chow isn't just nutritionally inadequate, it's plain gross.

They contend that the peanut butter, sardines and cabbage served up daily by the Florida Department of Corrections are designed to discourage inmates from signing up for the kosher meals or to punish inmates if they do.

Critics say that the chow is far from what a federal judge had in mind last year when she ordered the state to start serving kosher meals to inmates.

Agency officials insist the revised kosher meal option --- which until last month included items such as meatloaf, Salisbury steak and turkey cutlets --- is a way for the cash-strapped prison system to cut costs while complying with the court order.

"I would say that peanut butter, sardines and cabbage every day looks a lot like punishment," said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty which sued the state on behalf of Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jew who was denied a kosher diet.

Rich dropped his case in December after 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." Seitz's ruling, which the state is appealing, came in a separate lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against the corrections department. A trial in that case is set for Aug. 25.

According to the Department of Corrections, 3,100 of the state's more than 100,000 inmates are receiving the diet at the six institutions where it is now offered, and more than 5,000 others have been approved for the diet.

Meanwhile, the agency is trying to do away with a decades-old rule requiring that inmates receive two hot meals each day.

"As stated the proposed rule is to allow the department to more effectively manage its food service operations, and that includes being able to implement a kosher meal plan in the most cost-effective way possible, while meeting the nutritional and religious needs." department spokeswoman Jessica Cary said in an e-mail.

But Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg said the cold-meal rule revision is clearly another punitive measure.

"It's pretty obvious to me that the reason for this rule change is so they don't have to serve hot meals to inmates receiving a religious diet because the religious diet is predominantly cold," Berg said. "In my opinion, they're doing it to try and discourage inmates from choosing the religious diet. It's not bread and water, but it's pretty close. A steady diet of peanut butter, cabbage and sardines is not very appealing to anyone."

The state has been embroiled in legal challenges over the kosher meals for more than a decade. The kosher meals are available not only for Jewish prisoners, but for Muslim and Seventh-Day Adventists, whose religions also prescribe dietary restrictions.

The lawsuits center on the federal "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act" law, which went into effect in 2000. The law prohibits the government from imposing a "substantial burden" on an inmate's religious exercise, unless the government can prove that the restriction furthers a "compelling government interest" and is "the least restrictive means" of furthering that interest.

The state has 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. In line with other court decisions, Seitz rejected those arguments in her December ruling.

After settling a previous lawsuit in 2004, Florida provided kosher meals to prisoners for three years until it ignored a study panel's recommendations and scrapped the program in 2007. Under a directive from former Gov. Charlie Crist, the South Florida Reception Center began offering kosher meals in 2010, with an average of fewer than 20 inmates receiving the special meals.

After the Justice Department sued, the agency began serving kosher meals last spring --- about three years after Rich filed his initial lawsuit --- at Union Correctional Institution, where Rich is housed. But so many inmates started signing up for the individually wrapped, boxed meals --- at about four times the cost of the $1.93 per day the agency spends feeding each inmate --- Department of Corrections officials imposed a "sincerity" test to ferret out those who lacked a genuine religious purpose. Seitz barred the agency from conducting the screenings and imposed other restrictions on entrée into the program. In her December order, Seitz barred the state from imposing those restrictions.

The agency started dishing up the revamped diet, which Cary said costs $3.60 per day, in late March in several prisons and on Monday at the Union County facility, prompting inmates who are involved in the lawsuit to file complaints, most of them hand-written, with Seitz.

"The Menu schedule to commence on April 1, 2014, is the most onerous of all of the defendant's Menus plan to implement. Peanut butter and jelly again seven days a week for breakfast. For lunch, sardines three times a week, with canned beans and cabbage four days a week, with a carrot and a tomato thrown in one day a week for each. For supper, the same food items served for lunch will be served. THE ENTIRE MENU IS COLD FOOD SEVEN DAYS A WEEK!" Edward Arthur Surrat, an inmate at Union Correctional Institution wrote.

Department spokeswoman Cary said the new menu was filed with the court in February and "was accepted."

Florida's new menu is an outlier compared to menus in nearly three dozen other states and the federal prison system, lawyer Goodrich said.

"We've litigated a lot of these cases against prison systems and Florida is one of the most stubborn and willing to try to game the system. You're seeing some pretty wild oscillation from everybody who wants to can get on the diet and it's going to be $7 for pre-packaged meals to almost nobody can get on the diet and we're going to rigorously give you a theology test and feed you peanut butter, sardines and cabbage …whereas the law requires something in the middle," he said.

Other states and the federal government have found reasonable ways to ensure that only inmates with sincere religious beliefs are eligible for the program, Goodrich said.

But Cary said the state is doing the best it can under the circumstances, pointing out that Seitz gave the agency just six months to implement its kosher meal plan, compared to the 20 years it took the federal prison system to refine its religious dietary program. She also said that, because of Seitz's order, the department is unable to sort out which inmates are feigning religious beliefs so they can get meals that at one point were considered preferable to standard prison fare.

"Given the department's current financial situation, we have been diligent in developing a plan that complies with the aggressive timeline and open-ended provisions in the judge's order while striving to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Cary said in an e-mail.

DOC is asking lawmakers for an extra $11,556,776 for prison food services this year, but could not say how much of that is attributed to the cost of the kosher meals. In court filings, the department said the old, boxed meals could cost as much as $53 million extra, an amount disputed by lawyers for the prisoners and rejected by Seitz. According to the department's records, the kosher meals cost less than $145,000 a year during the three years the program was previously implemented.

"I don't think they're going to be able to get away with this diet. It's not something that any human being should have to choose just because they're a religious person. It's punitive in nature to those who choose to follow their religion," said Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison and military outreach at the Aleph Institute, which provides support for Jewish inmates across the country.

"The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report."

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