When Bubby and Zaida are doing cold, hard time in a Ft. Lauderdale corrections facility for knocking over that orthopedic cane store or running the world's largest underground shuffleboard ring, just what are they to nosh on? A decade-long legal battle that came to a close last week could answer just that.
Last Thursday, US District Court Judge Patricia Seitz ruled in favor of the US Department of Justice and ordered that the Florida Department of Corrections is required to offer kosher meals for inmates who so request.
This isn't the first time that Florida has faced scrutiny for its practices and handling of inmates. (And its prison food suppliers.) In fact, Gov. Rick Scott just today issued an executive order detailing prison reforms. But the kosher food dispute has been long in question.
Here's the thing, though. Florida already began to offer kosher meals in 2008, one year after the lawsuit was filed. The state just refused to acknowledge that under federal law they were obligated to do so.
But last week, the court ruled that they were in fact obligated, and it seems that the largest contributing factor to the Florida DOC's loss in the case was—shocker—themselves. In a 31-page opinion issued last Thursday, Judge Seitz stated: "It is hard to understand how defendants can have a compelling state interest in not spending money that they are already voluntarily spending on the exact thing they claim to have an interest in not providing,"
Curious as to what sort of kosher smorgasbord Florida has been serving its Jewish and dietary-restricted inmates? Well, last summer, the state switched its kosher prisoners to an all-cold-meal menu consisting of a peanut butter sandwich and a side of sardines. Should we point out that this was served twice a day and that Florida is home to the third-largest prison system in the US?
So, just how prohibitive are the costs that Florida has been complaining about? The kosher meals—which some Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists also take advantage of, given their similar dietary proscriptions—cost Florida around $7 per prisoner per day, as compared to less than $2 per day for non-Kosher meals. But while the department's major objection has been cost, conservative estimates for the cost of a year of kosher food is only $384,000, a number that could vary depending on the number of applicants. That's around $16,000 less than Florida has already spent on the legal battle.
Just in case you thought this occurrence was a one-off thing, remember when convicted murderer, rapist, and Connecticut inmate Steven Hayes stood up for menschs everywhere and claimed his rights as a converted Orthodox Jew were violated because his meals weren't Kosher enough? A federal judge rejected his claim late last year.
Some of the reluctance on the part of states to provide losher meals may arise from the fact that prisoners have been known to request them out of anything but true religious impetus. According to Gary Friedman, a chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, "Inmates have a lot of paranoia about what they are being fed," and believe that kosher meals taste better or are less likely to be adulterated. In fact, some gang members have been observed claiming that they are Jewish so they could sit in a kosher meal section and transact business.
But the bottom line is that in the state with the third largest population of Jews in America—including, according to an unofficial study, every other Jewish grandparent—the options for noshing in the clink just got better. And that's true whether you actually answer to a higher judge or not.