Oy vey: Prisons’ kosher meals need rural rabbis

“Like finding a rabbi in Chowchilla” may sound like the punch-line to a tasteless joke, but it reflects a real dilemma facing the embattled Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
At issue is the department’s kosher food program. By law, Corrections is required to provide religiously-appropriate meals to inmates who ask for them.

Kosher meals are only about 10 percent of the overall program, which serves some 7,000 inmates. The rest is split between Muslim Halal meals and vegetarian choices, which are demanded by a variety of religious sects.

But the kosher meals are the most expensive on a per-meal basis, partly because they require ongoing supervision from a rabbi or a qualified Jewish layperson. This can be a problem, since Jews only make up about 1 percent of state prison inmates. In the state’s overall population, Jews account for about 3 percent of the total.

They’re also heavily concentrated in urban areas. Take, for instance, the town of Chowchilla. It houses about 7,800 female prisoners in two facilities. The nearest synagogue is 19 miles away in Merced.

In fact, Chowchilla is a key place Corrections has been actively trying to recruit a rabbi, said Paul Verke, a spokesman with the department.

Verke says the kosher food/rabbi problem was a “staffing issue” and that no inmates were being denied their proper religious meals, which are required under a variety of laws. He said enrollment in the Halal,  Kosher and Vegetarian Meals program has been growing steadily.

But Rabbi Lon Moscowitz said Corrections hasn’t been doing enough.

“One doesn’t check their religion at the front of an institution as they would check their civilian clothing,” said Moscowitz, the Jewish chaplain at the 6,600 inmate California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. He’s worked for Corrections for 15 years, and is also a liaison to the Jewish Kosher Food Program.

Moscowitz said that Corrections isn’t utilizing resources that could help them find more rabbis or suitable Jewish laypeople. The issue was reported June 1 in the Jewish Daily Forward.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond agrees with Moscowitz. Diamond is an executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which, along with its Northern California counterpart, helps vet rabbis for positions at Corrections. To answer the obvious next question, they have on rare occasions run into people impersonating rabbis and helped expose them. He’s also a board member of the State Advisory Committee on Institutional Religion, which helps oversee Corrections’ compliance with religious freedom laws.

“I concur with my colleague, Rabbi Moscowitz,” Diamond said. “There are many issues here, but we don’t think the state is doing enough.”

Moscowitz said that he’s been denied “detached duty” time that would allow him to spend time off the advisory board’s screening committee to help find candidates. He also said the Department has been slow to issue exceptions to the statewide hiring freeze in order to bring in needed rabbis.

Diamond said that there are a number of troubling signs. In some cases, rabbis have retired or been dismissed without being replaced.

“They’re state employees,” Diamond said. “I wouldn’t even begin to comment on a given situation.” He added, “We are certainly not insensitive to the state’s budget woes.”

But by coordinating with his board or others, they could help identify people. The overseeing person is usually a rabbi who ministers to Jewish inmates, Diamond said. But a properly-trained Jewish layperson could also be hired to do the work.

The department could also be more creative in creating part-time positions – for instance, finding a young rabbi without a congregation of their own to commute for part of the week to a rural location. This would be enough time to sample food and review menus and ingredients, he said.

Statewide, Jews are an already-small minority that is underrepresented among prisoners. Only about half of these inmates are requesting kosher meals: 713, as of March. This compares to 3,200 inmates getting Halal Muslim meals and almost 3,100 getting vegetarian meals.

But the kosher food costs Corrections $8.50 per inmate per day, compared to $2.90 for the average inmate. Halal food costs the department $3.20 a day, while vegetarian inmates’ meals costs are a mere $2.62.

“When you think about food in prison, it’s quite dumfounding,” Verke said. “Almost 150,000 inmates, three meals a day.”

Verke added: “We take it very seriously. They’re still getting Jewish kosher diet meals. Not only are they getting it, they’re guaranteed it by law.”

A variety of state and federal laws, actually, along with Corrections’ own regulations and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This was validated in a successful 2003 lawsuit by a Jewish inmate at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville. There’s also the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), signed by President Bill Clinton in late 2000.

Any discussion of special meal programs in prison always brings a chorus of people saying if inmates want special food, they shouldn’t have committed their crimes. But Verke notes that besides the fairly insurmountable legal requirements, we’re not talking about a five-star restaurant in Tel Aviv.

“It’s still prison food,” he said.

Moscowitz, meanwhile, noted the long tradition a variety of religions have played in rehabilitating prisoners.

“If there’s any place that needs serious, deep religion and its drive towards behavior modification, it is the prisons,” Moscowitz said. 

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