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Eye On Boise

Idaho faces class-action lawsuit over failure to provide kosher meals for Jewish prisoners

Inmates walk from their cellblock to the dining hall at the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise. (Charlie Litchfield / File/Associated Press)
Inmates walk from their cellblock to the dining hall at the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise. (Charlie Litchfield / File/Associated Press)

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By Betsy Z. Russell

BOISE – Despite years of warnings, Idaho’s state prison system is continuing to refuse to provide kosher meals to Jewish inmates, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Idaho.

Jewish prisoners have repeatedly filed grievances and requests for kosher meals, only to be denied. And during the eight-day Jewish festival of Passover, when observant Jews observe additional dietary restrictions, several prisoners said there was nothing provided by the prisons they could eat but fruit.

“I think everyone can think for themselves what it would mean to be placed into a situation where you violate your religious beliefs every single time that you ate,” said Richard Eppink, ACLU of Idaho legal director. “Religious freedom is one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, whether you are incarcerated or not.”

The lawsuit charges that the Idaho Department of Correction is violating both state and federal law, plus the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, by refusing to provide kosher diets for Jewish prisoners.

Jeff Ray, IDOC spokesman, said, “We are still reviewing the lawsuit. We are not in a position to comment.”

Luke Goodrich, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty – which has won lawsuits over the issue in multiple states including Texas, Florida and Indiana, but is not involved in the Idaho case – said, “Lots of different prison systems in all different size states and all different geographic regions are able to provide kosher-for-Passover meals. So based on my experience, there’s no good reason why Idaho can’t do the same.”

Goodrich said at least 35 states and the federal government provide “truly kosher diets” for Jewish inmates, to comply with federal law.

According to documents filed in the court case, the Idaho Department of Correction requested a report from Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz in 2005 on its religious accommodations for Jewish prison inmates. Lifshitz reported that IDOC could fulfill requirements for kosher meals by providing sealed, pre-prepared certified kosher meals, as do most state prison systems; many also supplement those with fruit or other cold items that already are kosher.

While IDOC’s internal “Handbook of Religious Beliefs and Practices” specifically requires that Jewish inmates be provided a kosher diet upon request, including kosher-for-Passover meals during that holiday, the department instead has taken the position that it doesn’t offer any religion-specific diet, instead offering all inmates a choice between a “mainline” menu or five “selective diet options.”

According to documents provided by the department, those include a “healthy choice diet” with reduced calories, fat, salt and sugar; a non-pork diet; a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs; a vegan diet; and a new “common fare” diet, first implemented last year at two of the state’s prisons, that includes vegan foods plus dairy or kosher meat items, without mixing the two.

“What it seems to do is it seems to satisfy restrictions for a halal diet, without actually meeting requirements for a kosher diet,” Eppink said, referring to the diet followed by Muslims. “And the three rabbis that have submitted declarations in our case all agree.”

Rabbi Dan Fink, rabbi for Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, wrote in a declaration submitted in the case that the “common fare” approach “calls for using some kosher ingredients and food items,” but lacks protections against cross-contamination from non-kosher items; rabbinical supervision and certification; and provisions for kosher-for-Passover foods.

“Common Fare does not satisfy Jewish understandings of kosher and kashrut,” Fink wrote.

Eppink said the result is that IDOC now has diets to accommodate every religion named in its religious handbook except Judaism.

“IDOC’s refusal to provide kosher meals violates the religious rights of Jewish prisoners in Idaho,” the lawsuit states. “IDOC’s dietary policies force prisoners with a religious basis for consuming kosher meals to violate their core religious beliefs on a daily basis.”

One of the four inmates named in the lawsuit, who began keeping kosher when he converted to Judaism at age 17, “starved without food for the entire week of Passover for two straight years – in 2015 and 2016 – and ate only fruit this year,” the lawsuit states.

Eppink said some matzah, the unleavened bread that observant Jews eat in place of leavened foods during Passover, was donated or ordered by individual prisoners through the prison commissary, but IDOC didn’t provide any.

The Idaho ACLU reached out to IDOC last spring, Eppink said, after receiving letters from a number of Jewish prisoners, to discuss providing a kosher diet. “They told us shortly after those discussions began that they were going to roll out this thing they called ‘common fare,’” Eppink said. “We told them after consulting with the rabbis that it did not appear that it was going to be kosher, and they proceeded to go ahead with it despite that warning.”

Eppink said IDOG has made considerable investments in separate common fare food-preparation areas and cookware within the prison kitchens at the Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino and the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise, rather than provide kosher meals.

“The IDOC, just like every other jail or prison system in the country, has to meet the dietary needs of its prisoners,” Eppink said, “and if those dietary needs come with religious restrictions because of a prisoner’s sincere religious belief, then it has to meet those religious restrictions as well.”

In addition to damages for the four inmates whose requests for kosher meals have been repeatedly denied since 2009, the lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction to order IDOC to provide a kosher diet to Jewish inmates.

“It would be outstanding if, in the meantime, IDOC wanted to work out a way to make that happen,” Eppink said. “Because we’re not interested in expending any more resources on any side on this than need be, but it seems to be a problem that continues to go unaddressed.”

Goodrich said, “When I speak with people about prison religious accommodations, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, if you commit the crime you just lose all your rights.’ But I think a lot of people don’t understand that allowing people to practice their faith in prison has actually been shown to reduce prison violence, produce better behavior in prison and reduce the likelihood of committing crimes after release. So it’s not just a matter of rights, although that’s a very good reason to do it, but it’s also just smart policy to accommodate religious practice in prison.”

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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