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Timeline: Kosher food fights for Jewish prisoners

An article in The Forward this week reveals that kosher meal provisions in California state prisons are being targeted for state budget cuts; the same is true in Nevada, According to the Las Vegas Review Journal. The online trade newsletter Kosher Today claims that the demand for Kosher food in prisons today is valued at $40 million dollars.

The history of kosher meal policies for Jewish inmates is extensive, encompassing issues of federal and states’ rights and separation of church and state. It also involves several organizations familiar to the broader Jewish community. Our timeline below offers some key events from this ongoing debate, as well as curious cases, such as an 819-day hunger strike and a Nazi-tatooed inmate requesting kosher meals in Missouri:

 

    • March 1929: 165 federal prisoners in Atlanta furnished with ten pounds of Matzah — each. In New York, Jewish inmates in Elmira receive five pounds each, courtesy of a local temple and the local chapter of National Council of Jewish Women.

    • April 1934: Jewish inmates of Lewisberg penitentiary threaten hunger strike unless Passover food is provided; prison accedes to request.

    • June 1973: National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) drafts legislation to allow for Jewish inmates in federal prison to request at least one hot kosher meal daily.   

    • February 1974: British minister discloses that a Jewish prisoner in England went on a hunger strike for 819 days because he was not provided kosher food. The inmate was kept alive by force feeding. 

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    • August 1975: Federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein of Brooklyn rules for a second time that Jewish inmates in federal prisons, specifically Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane, have a constitutional right to kosher food.  

    • June 1976: Following negotiations with COLPA, Federal Bureau of Prisons set policy entitling Jewish inmates in federal prisons to full kosher meals. The National Council of Young Israel, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (sponsors of the O-U certification program), and the Rabbinical Council of America also helped draft the statement. 

    • May 1979: The State Correctional Facility at Auburn, NY, a maximum security facility, agrees to provide kosher meals to inmates following discussion with The American Jewish Congress and the New York Board of Rabbis.  

    • June 1983: Federal judge rules that an inmate in North Carolina is entitled to food certified by a Hasidic rabbinic agency, overruling Federal Bureau of Prison’s policy to provide food bearing O-U certification. 

    • July 1993: Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that "would make it harder for the government to encroach on free exercise of religion,"  is passed by Congress. Attorney General Janet Reno expresses her opposition to legislation proposed by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) to exempt prisons from the act. 

    • July 1993: After a two-year legal battle, American-born Robert Manning and his wife Rochelle Manning is extradited by Israel for his role in a 1980 mail bombing that killed an office worker at a Los Angeles computer software company. Manning cited lack of kosher food as a concern while unsuccessfully contesting his extradition. Although kosher food was provided, "Manning told a local rabbi that he had been kept apart from other prisoners at the detention center, on grounds that the bobby pins he uses to fasten the yarmulka to his head might be used as weapons by other prisoners."

    • June 1997: U.S. Supreme Court declares Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional.

    • July 2000: Congress passes Religious Land Use and Institutionalize Persons Act, a bill whose scope is more focussed than RFRA.

    • September 2002: Lawsuit filed in a district court in Florida seeks to require state prisons to provide Jewish inmates with kosher meals. 

    • April 2004: Prisoner Mitzi Ann Hamilton, serving five years for fraud and forgery, sues the state of Virginia for sexual discrimination for allegedly moving her to a maximum-security facility in order to accommodate her request for kosher food.

    • December 2004: U.S. District Court upholds religious rights of prisoners in case of Atlanta prisoner who wishes to wear a yarmulke and eat kosher food. 

    • May 2005U.S. Supreme Court affirms religious rights for prisoners. The implications for Jewish prisoners were spelled out in a JTA article published in March of that year.

    • October 2005ACLU files lawsuit on behalf of a Colorado prisoner whose kosher meals were revoked for a year as punishment for a minor offense.

    • April 2008: Gordon Bock, former prisoner, settles lawsuit with Vermont Department of Corrections for $25,000 after having been denied Passover food and other Jewish ritual items offered by the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that works with Jewish prisoners.

    • October 2008: Nazi-tatooed inmate sues Missouri Department of Corrections for not providing him with kosher food.

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