MIAMI (AP) — Florida is moving ahead with a plan to offer kosher meals in all state prisons by the end of the year, a corrections official testified at a hearing Tuesday on a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit demanding such a program.
James Upchurch, assistant Department of Corrections secretary for institutions, said food following the strict Jewish dietary rules would be served beginning in July at the 2,000-inmate Union Correctional Institution in north Florida and then would expand through the fall to 60 facilities across the state.
“We will make the policy work,” Upchurch told U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz at the hearing. “When you run a prison, there are security problems with everything you do. We don’t see any that are insurmountable at this point.”
Florida previously offered kosher meals at selected prisons for three years until 2007, then began a pilot program at a South Florida prison in 2010. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed a federal lawsuit last year demanding that the state be required to offer kosher food at all prisons.
A Justice Department lawyer, Michael Songer, said that despite the state’s assurances, the U.S. wants the judge to issue a kosher food order so that the policy couldn’t simply be changed in the future. Kosher diets and other tenets of religious faith are protected for prisoners by the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, he said.
“The state is not willing to make an enduring commitment to providing kosher meals,” Songer said. “We believe Florida has been refusing to provide kosher meals in violation of the law for years.”
The judge did not immediately issue a ruling, nor did she decide on a motion by attorneys for Muslim inmates seeking to join the case so they can get halal or kosher meals in prison. Seitz said Florida and the U.S. should be permitted to respond to that motion in writing before she rules.
The hearing follows a decision last month by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstating a separate kosher meal lawsuit filed by Bruch Rich, an Orthodox Jew and convicted murderer serving a life sentence at the Union prison. The appeals court said a federal judge should determine if the state’s new kosher plan will resolve Rich’s complaints.
In his testimony, Upchurch said the previous kosher program caused several problems, including inmates who faked Jewish faith to transfer to one of the 13 prisons that offered the meals. Some did so to be closer to home, while others claimed to be kosher so they could band together in gangs. There were also issues with banned items being smuggled in the kosher meals and some inmates were jealous of the special treatment, he said.
“There are a lot of inmates who will abuse and manipulate the system and the things we provide,” Upchurch said.
During the three years kosher meals were offered in Florida prisons a total of 784 inmates participated, he said, and about 500 eventually dropped out. It’s not clear how many of Florida’s roughly 100,250 prisoners might sign up this time.
John L. Clark, a former top administrator at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said the federal system has offered kosher meals nationwide since 1995. Clark said there have been similar problems — especially disparities in which inmates get access to the food — but overall it’s better to offer the meals without asking too many faith-based questions.
“You don’t test the sincerity of somebody by their ability to articulate,” Clark said. “The policy was written to open the door.”
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