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Jewish Prisoners Win Truly Kosher Meal Plan at Idaho Prison

"As far as I'm concerned as a rabbi, this is a victory for religious freedom."

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Passover, an eight-day festival celebrated by the Jewish faith in mid-April, traditionally begins and ends with two days of feasting; however, for Jews incarcerated in Idaho prisons, this Passover was marked by near-starvation instead.

A disagreement between Jewish prisoners and the Idaho Department of Corrections over whether the IDOC Common Fare meal plan was actually kosher lead four Jewish inmates to file a religious freedom lawsuit against the department this spring. The inmates have submitted unsuccessful complaints to the department since 2009, but were spurred to legal action when two of the inmates subsisted on only fruit and matzo crackers during Passover, choosing to starve rather than violate their faith.

ACLU of Idaho and Ferguson Durham PLLC represented the inmates, arguing that IDOC's refusal to alter its meal plan to meet the prisoners' religious standards was an infringement of their first amendment rights. Although IDOC continues to insist that Common Fare has always been kosher, the two parties reached a settlement Aug. 11 in favor of the plaintiffs—a revised Common Fare meal plan will be available at all IDOC facilities beginning Nov. 1.

"IDOC was offering inmates a diet plan that was kosher and included fresh fruits and fresh vegetables, but we settled this case to avoid a long, expensive legal battle," said IDOC Public Information Officer Jeffrey Ray.

According to Ray, IDOC met kosher standards when it implemented Common Fare last summer. The plan included individually wrapped, kosher-certified meats, fresh produce and prepackaged dairy products prepared for inmates in a separate area of the IDOC kitchens with designated equipment and utensils washed separately in a sanitized environment.

Yet for "individuals actually practicing the faith," as ACLU of Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales put it, these efforts weren't enough. Morales cited the opinions of the plaintiffs, who span the denominations of Judaism, and experts like Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz of the Chabad Jewish Center of Idaho, who advised IDOC on accommodations for Jewish prisoners in 2005.

"[The Common Fare] diet was an effort to provide kosher, and it was perhaps what you might call kosher-style, [but] it did not meet the requirement of kosher law...from a religious perspective, it was never sufficient," Lifschitz confirmed. "As far as I'm concerned as a rabbi, this is a victory for religious freedom."

Meals will now be served with disposable dishes and utensils to prevent cross-contamination during the washing process, an approach in keeping with kosher law.

"It's been an uphill battle, but we're glad that we will finally be able to follow our religious tenets without having to go hungry anymore," said the plaintiffs in a joint statement. "An injury to one Jew is an injury to the whole Jewish community."

Morales chalked up IDOC's reluctance to revise Common Fare to stubbornness about the definition of kosher and concerns over excess cost, a barrier to kosher meal plans nationwide.

According to a 2014 New York Times article, the Florida prison system resisted reinstating its kosher meal plan because the $7-per-inmate-per-day cost was more than four times its standard rate. A similar disparity plagued prisons in New York and California, and the trend holds true in Idaho: IDOC spends 90 cents per day on prisoners who choose the standard meal plan, while the old Common Fare plan cost $1.75 and the revised plan price will jump to $3.50.

Contrary to Morales' guess, IDOC claims not to be worried about spending extra. This is likely because for the last two fiscal years, vacant positions and unexpectedly low contract costs, among other things, left the department with extra cash in its budget: $3,660,778 in 2016 and $2,598,336 in 2017. That money went back to the state, but next year's excess may end up in prisoners' stomachs.

Although a revised meal plan is guaranteed to roll out, whether the original Common Fare plan was constitutional has yet to be decided. Ray noted claims the meal plan violated constitutional rights or laws are unconfirmed by the court, but although that's true, the court didn't find in favor of IDOC either—instead, the settlement preempted a true ruling.

For Morales, there is no question constitutional rights were at stake, and ACLU will continue to pursue monetary compensation for the plaintiffs.

"The champions here are the individuals in prison," he said. "That's what it takes for all of us in this society to have constitutional rights—to stand up for them when they're being violated."

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