Jewish Inmates Sue Arizona Prisons Over Kosher Meal Change

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Tuesday, January 19, 2021 - 6:02pm
Updated: Wednesday, January 20, 2021 - 8:03pm

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Arizona Department of Corrections building
Arizona Department of Corrections
Arizona Department of Corrections building in Phoenix.

Jewish inmates in Arizona state prisons are suing the Department of Corrections over a change in the kosher meal program.

The Arizona Department of Corrections switched from a kosher meal to a “plant-based common fare meal” on Aug. 1, 2020, at all state-run prisons.

The Department of Corrections did not give a reason for the meal change but said both the old kosher offering and the new meal cost $2.06.

Department spokesperson Bill Lamoreaux said the common fare meal was “reviewed by Imams and Rabbis to ensure it meets their religious standards. The common fare meal is offered in many other State Departments of Corrections as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”

But Jordan Kroop, an attorney at Perkins Coie, says the department is operating under erroneous assumptions about Kashrut, a set of dietary laws observed by followers of Judaism.

“A common fare meal is not kosher just because it doesn’t contain meat or dairy,” Kroop said. “Kashrut requires kosher meals to meet specifically, religiously prescribed standards for acceptable sources of food, method of food preparation, packaging, service and other requirements.”

Kroop said the common fare meal served by ADC contains components that are unable to be regarded as kosher. He said he was contacted by a Jewish chaplaincy program that focuses on the needs of Jewish inmates on behalf of people in Arizona state prisons after the Department made the meal change.

Kroop is representing three Jewish inmate plaintiffs who are claiming the Department of Corrections is violating their religious rights. “These inmates, and many others like them, have attempted to carve out for themselves, a religiously true life while they are incarcerated,” he said. “We should be encouraging that," Kroop said. 

Kroop contends the new common fare meal not only violates inmates’ rights, but also lacks nutrition and variety. After speaking with the plaintiffs, Kroop said he believes they are receiving very similar meals three times a day. “It’s basically peanut butter sandwiches all day, every day,” Kroop said.

In a complaint filed in federal court in December, Kroop alleges, “ADC knows or should know that these common fare meals are not kosher, and, by serving them, they force Plaintiffs—and dozens of other Jewish prisoners—to violate their core religious beliefs.”

Specifically, Kroop says the meals violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, “which adds a considerable amount of teeth to the First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause.”

“RLUIPA basically says that the government and states cannot impose restrictions on the exercise of religion, unless there is a compelling reason to do so,” Kroop said, adding that federal courts have consistently held that the law requires prisons to provide Kosher food. “This is an unnecessary and illegal burden to the exercise of my clients’ religion.”

Kroop said the change also violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “By making distinctions between inmates that require kosher food and other inmates that don’t require kosher food, and specifically providing better meals with higher quality, higher quantity and higher variety to general population inmates, the Department is violating the Constitution,” he said.

Kroop said ADC could fix the problem by simply reverting to the kosher meal that was offered in state prisons before the change. “That would go a very long way, maybe all the way, in resolving our concerns here,” Kroop said.

In a declaration to the court, one of the plaintiffs living in the Tucson prison, Daniel Brinauer, described the common fare meal. “The vegetables often come to us either still frozen or rotten,” Brinauer said. “The ‘tossed salad’ is almost always two solitary wilted pieces of undressed lettuce or a leaf of lettuce wrapped in saran wrap. The vegan mock meat hot entrees are inedible, and they serve us the same entrée several days in a row.”

Brinauer said the previous kosher meals were of a higher quality and nutritional value. “ADC’s kosher diet included milk, eggs, tuna, cottage cheese, fruits, vegetables, and various kosher meats and cheeses,” he said. In addition to the lower quality, Brinauer said he is concerned about the way the new meal is handled and prepared. “I cannot eat it without violating the basic tenets of my Jewish faith,” he said.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, there were approximately 1,210 inmates in state prisons receiving a kosher diet in August 2020.

The complaint could become a class-action lawsuit. Kroop is asking the United States District Court in Arizona to certify a class “consisting of: all past, present, and future ADC inmates who require kosher meals to comply with sincerely held religious beliefs and are provided non-kosher common fare meals, in violation of RLUIPA and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

This is not the first time Arizona Department of Corrections Director David Shinn has faced litigation over access to religious diets. Shinn was sued in his capacity as warden of the Victorville Federal Correctional Institution in California for prohibiting access to religious diets for Sikh asylum seekers who were being detained at the prison in August of 2018.

Attorneys representing the inmates in that case said Shinn quickly settled after the lawsuit was filed.

James Sonne, a professor of law and the director of the Religious Liberty Clinic at Stanford Law School, says the issue of religious diets in prisons has been extensively litigated. He says it received renewed attention when the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was enacted in 2000.

“RLUIPA provides for protection of religious liberty in prison and requires prisons to accommodate prisoners, where there would be a substantial burden on their religious beliefs,” Sonne said.

In an August interview with KJZZ after the meal change was implemented, Sonne said the common fare meal was an appealing option to prisons because “it's a least common denominator in satisfying the dietary needs of many religious traditions.”

“That said, the devil is in the details,” Sonne said, “both as to its compliance with inmate beliefs and in its quality.”

For example, Sonne said while a common fare menu might lack pork, it still might violate Jewish kosher law by not being supervised by a rabbi.

“Moreover, although such a menu might have adequate calories, it might consist only of bland, unpalatable, or oft-repeated ingredients,” Sonne said.

The department said the common fare meal has been certified to meet federal nutritional standards by a registered dietitian with the contracted food services provider.

Kroop said he is hopeful the issue can be resolved. He said complaints over prison food usually do not make it all the way to a trial. “The plaintiffs really just want a practical solution,” he said. “And the defendants don’t want to have to submit themselves to discovery, because they don’t want people to see what kind of slop we’re serving to inmates.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jordan Kroop's name.

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