Despite having a significant Jewish community and the country’s third largest prison population, the state stopped offering kosher food or catering to other religious dietary requirements on grounds of cost in 2007, NYT reports. However, a federal judge Patricia Seitz of the U.S. District Court in Miami last month ruled that the prisons service had to provide kosher meals for all inmates “with a sincere religious basis for keeping kosher” by July 1, saying Florida had violated a law in 2000 protecting inmates’ religious freedom. Last April, facing an inmate lawsuit, Florida began a pilot program for the religious diet at Union Correctional Facility near Jacksonville. Initially, some 250 inmates signed up but once other inmates saw the individually boxed lunches, 863 expressed a sudden interest in keeping kosher. The reasons are: in a caged world of few choices, the meals are a novelty, a chance to break from the usual ritual of prison life. Others believe the kosher turkey cutlets and spaghetti and meatballs simply taste better.
When Florida starts serving kosher food again in July, it will be the 35th state to do so, along with federal prisons. Officials had expected some 300 inmates to request the kosher meals, but were inundated with more than 4,400 requests, according to a report earlier this month in the Tampa Bay Times. “The last number I saw Monday was 4,417,” Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael D. Crews told State Senate committee. “Once they start having the meals, we could see the number balloon.”
Kosher meals are fresher and taste better than nonkosher alternatives, which often include protein alternatives to meat, and prison officials underestimated the number of requests they would get for the specially prepared food. “Inmates have a lot of paranoia about what they are being fed,” Gary Friedman, a chaplain who is chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, told the paper. “If they are using prepackaged, sealed meals, the inmates believe they are safer.”
However, this may cost the budget a pinching penny. Crews told a State Senate committee that the state pays $1.52 a day for three regular meals for inmates, while two kosher meals push the cost upward to at least $4 a day, according to the Tampa Bay Times. In New York State, where 1,500 inmates out of about 56,000 keep kosher, the cost of a kosher meal is $5 a person. In California, where some prisons have kosher kitchens, the price tag is $8, and the meals are served to 0.7 percent of about 120,000 inmates.
The New York Times reported Monday that prison officials are concerned the cost of providing kosher food could reach $54.1 million statewide at a time when the Florida prison system faces a $58 million deficit.
Meanwhile, Florida Governor Rick Scott has also vowed to cut $1 billion in spending on prisons, in part by privatizing some of them.The state has around 100,000 inmates in its prisons. According to the latest official figures just over 2,100 are Jewish. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said that prison chaplains in the state would start working with prisoners to decide who should be eligible for the kosher meals.
However, human rights advocates find this practice a violation:
“Most states do provide kosher diets, even Texas where there are about 25-30 Jewish inmates,” said Eric Rassbach, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.”Of the remaining states that don’t, they tend not to be ones with a big Jewish population. I don’t think there is a large number of observant Jewish inmates in North Dakota. Florida had made it seem as if the sky would fall in and providing kosher food would blow a whole in their budget.”
Across the country as a whole it is estimated that only a sixth of the 24,000 inmates currently being served kosher food are observant Jews.
But Mr Rassbach, who accused Florida of being stubborn over the issue, said he believed that that respecting religious beliefs should not present a problem. “Florida is an outlier,” said Eric Rassbach, which has represented inmates around the country. “It’s a holdout. I don’t know why it’s being a holdout. It is strange that Florida, of all places, is placing a special burden on Jewish inmates. It’s just stubbornness.”
“If somebody has a sincere belief they need kosher food, then the state should be able to provide it to them”, he added.
Airplane passengers, for instance, have been known to order kosher meals, even if they are not Jewish, in the hope of getting a fresher and tastier tray of food. It turns out that prison inmates are no different.
Kosher food in prisons has long served as fodder for lawsuits around the country, with most courts coming down firmly on the side of inmates.
The question of who gets a kosher meal is tricky. In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals.
Attempts by prison officials and rabbis to quiz prisoners about the Torah and the rules of keeping kosher were ruled not kosher. Tracing maternal lineage was similarly viewed unfavorably.
“Knowledge does not equal sincerity,” Mr. Friedman said.
Some states, like New York, do nothing to try to discern who is feigning Jewishness. In California, inmates talk with a rabbi who will gauge, very generally, a prisoner’s actual interest.
But some Jewish groups in Florida are pushing for greater control, which may pose a difficult legal hurdle.
“There should be a way to ascertain who really does require a kosher meal for their religious belief,” said Rabbi Menachem M. Katz, director of prison and military outreach for the Aleph Institute in South Florida, “and who is just gaming the system.”