MIAMI – A federal judge has ordered the Florida Department of Corrections (DoC) to provide kosher meals to inmates after it rejected the state’s claim that providing kosher meals is too expensive.
Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who has been in the fight to protect Jewish prisoners since 2002, spoke to the Florida Record and said that this was a significant ruling for the inmates considering that the Department of Corrections has been fighting for more than a decade to deny kosher meals.
“This is a game-changer,” Blomberg said. “While prisoners aren’t popular, they are human, and it is crucial to protect their fundamental human rights to religious liberty.”
Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the agency as part of the extended battle over serving religious meals, challenging the corrections officials’ claim that they were not required to provide the meals in addition to the rules the agency used to state who was allowed to receive the meals.
While corrections officials were already serving the kosher meals to inmates, they refused to acknowledge that they were required to do so under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act law enacted in 2000.
In 2004, the DoC began providing kosher meals to its Jewish inmates at 13 facilities and transferred inmates eligible for kosher meals. In 2006, the department then extended the program to all faiths, but stopped it in 2007 before it was reintroduced in 2010 as a pilot project at one prison.
After the lawsuit was filed a year later, the department started serving kosher meals, promising to have the meals available to all inmates by last July. However, last summer, the department made a U-turn and switched to all-cold meals, mainly of peanut butter sandwiches and sardines.
In a brief prepared by lawyers for the department they stated that if just 1.5 to 2 percent of the total prison population joined the program, the department would spend up to $1.7 million a year, which doesn’t take into account the extra cost for disposable plates and utensils. However, the department’s lawyers failed to demonstrate how the cost of the program had affected the operation of the prison in any way.
According to Blomberg, the department ignored that 35 other states and the federal prison system have been successfully providing kosher meals for decades.
“It complained that it was too expensive to spend a $1.50 more per day to protect a Jewish prisoner, but $1.50 is a small price to pay to protect religious liberty,” Blomberg said.
According to the department it estimated that the costs for making kosher meals available to all inmates could total between $384,000 and $12.3 million, depending on how many inmates signed up for the program and stuck with it.
Blomberg is of the opinion, though, that society benefits in the long run if the religion of inmates is respected.
“Not only does respecting religious liberty for anyone help protect it for everyone, but studies also show that allowing prisoners to practice their faith substantially reduces both violence in prison and recidivism outside of prison.”