By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Tired of prison food? Claim Judaism.

Frequent flyers have been doing it for years. After all, kosher food tastes better.

Gentile prisoners have caught on to what they have to do to exchange mundane fare for a decadent spread. The new trend is to pass for Jewish to legally order a meal as close to gourmet as it gets behind bars.

Even prison gang members are now going Kosher so they can partake in private dining with other gang members and quietly make plans around the meal table. Kosher meal subscribers are seated together for religious reasons.

Pleading Judaism to swap out a tray of mediocre food for fresh tastier morsels is a no brainer as long as you are not an inmate incarcerated in a Florida prison. Despite Florida having the third largest prison system in the U.S., it is one of only 15 states that no longer offers inmates a kosher diet system wide.

Serving kosher food in prison to suitable inmates has become a court approved contemporary practice in most states, however, the latest boom in non-Jewish inmates ordering kosher cuisine has alerted prison authorities and spoiling chow time for some main line diners.

Michael D. Crews, upcoming secretary of the Department of Corrections is already expressing concerns about the expense of religious meals. He predicts the last staggering calculation of 4,417 inmate requests for special meals will multiply if the program is delivered. This prophecy has Senator Greg Evers, the Republican chairman of the Senate Justice Committee inquiring, “Is bread and water considered kosher? Just a thought. Just a thought.”

The difference between kosher prison meals and ordinary meals is quite substantial. A kosher tray sets the state back $7 compared to the conventional hot dog or hamburger plate at $1.54. In New York State, where 1,500 inmates out of about 56,000 keep kosher, the cost of a kosher meal is only $5 a person. New York prison officials do not monitor which inmates are posing as Jewish just to get a break from routine prison meals or who is actually Jewish.  

Leave it to California to be the only state with specialty kosher kitchens as an added prison amenity. It is no surprise that the hefty price tag for a kosher meal in the Golden State goes up to $8. Out of California’s 120,000 inmates, 0.7 percent are indulging in kosher fine dining. California prisoners are evaluated by a rabbi to determine if their appetite for kosher food is out of boredom with prison food or devotion to Jewish culture. 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.

Florida state prisons were supplying kosher meals to its large Jewish inmate population until 2007 when it was stopped due to cost and unfairness to non-Jewish prisoners. Although, some inmates have protested the ban, they have not been able to change the minds of Florida prison officials. However, last year a breakthrough was made when the United States Department of Justice sued Florida on the grounds of violating a law that went into effect in 2000. The law endorses prisoner’s right to practice religious rituals and defends their religious freedom. Unfortunately, for the Florida prison system, the U.S. government wins. Beginning in July, Florida state prisons will resume serving kosher meals. In December, the federal judge in the case issued a temporary injunction ordering the state to add kosher meals to the prison menu.  

Union Correctional Facility near Jacksonville, Florida launched a pilot program for religious diets last April as a response to an inmate lawsuit. The program was unsuccessful because of the competition with kosher food. Originally, about 250 prisoners were willing to give the meals a try, but when other inmates scrutinized the individually wrapped boxed lunches, 863 inmate diners decided to stick with the kosher diet. 

Gary Friedman, chaplain and chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International has over 20 years of experience working with the topic of kosher prison meals. He claims inmates do not trust the food that is served in prison. They are suspicious about contamination, out-of-date products that do not meet U.S.D.A. standards, and absurdly enough, inmates are afraid sex offenders could be preparing their food. Inmates believe packaged, sealed foods are safer.

The dilemma with the kosher prison meal ordeal is weeding through who is genuinely entitled to a Jewish meal. According to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are actually Jewish.  

The million dollar question is “Who is a Jew?” 

Federal courts avoid the controversial argument because according to policy, inmates who want a kosher meal only need to avow a “sincerely held” religious belief.

The reason the Florida prison system is so reluctant to provide kosher meals is they predict the cost could reach $54.1 million statewide.   

The irony of the kosher food problem is there are many other ways to cut back on prison costs, so why all the fuss about inmates lying about being Jewish so they can eat tolerable food? 

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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