Florida Prisons Must Have a Kosher Option, Court Rules

Going to prison in Florida no longer means you can't keep kosher.

After more than ten years of lawsuits, a federal court ruled that the Florida Department of Corrections must meet the dietary restrictions of prisoners who desire a rabbi-approved meal.

The FDOC had already been providing kosher meals through a pilot program at the South Florida Reception Center, which served eight to 18 prisoners. But no kosher nosh could be found in any of the other facilities, an in 2012, the Department of Justice filed suit against the FDOC to require kosher meals for all prisoners under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

And in a 31-page opinion, the FDOC must now do that.

“Federal law protects all Americans from arbitrary restrictions of their religious practice. This includes prisoners,” says Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Today, there is one less arbitrary restriction on religious freedom.”

The DOJ argued that most prisons already offer a kosher alternative. And according to Judge Patricia Seitz, the FDOC “failed to present any evidence as to why FDOC is different than these other prison systems.”

Citing the Supreme Court case Holt v. Hobbs, which ruled on behalf of prisoners who wanted to maintain beards for religious reasons, Seitz wrote: “When so many prisons offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course, and the [FDOC] failed to make that showing here.”

The FDOC said the cost of providing kosher meals would be prohibitive and costly — to the tune of about $4 million. But the judge said they didn't provide enough detail to substantiate that cost, adding that the cost is likely based on an exaggerated 100 percent participation rate. And since the FDOC has so much money anyway — with a budget of $2.3 billion, of which only $56 million goes to food — providing a knish now and then shouldn't be so hard.

Although the FDOC must now provide a kosher option, that doesn't mean it has to be good. As of now, the kosher option is all cold and consists of "peanut butter, cold cereal, and bread for breakfast every day and a mix of some of the following for lunch and dinner every day: sardines, cabbage, beans, carrots, peanut butter, bread or crackers, and an occasional piece of fruit," according to the court ruling.

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Ray Downs
Contact: Ray Downs