On Tuesday, the Federal government filed a suit against the Florida Department of Corrections in the U.S. District Court in Miami accusing the state of violating the religious rights of prisoners by stopping its kosher meal service in 2007. According to the lawsuit hundreds of prisoners in Florida are forced to choose between violating their religious beliefs or face starvation. A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said, “because there is pending litigation, we are not able to make any comments.”
According to reports Florida has an annual corrections budget of $ 2.4 billion, and holds more than 100,000 prisoners in 146 prisons, work-camps and work-release centers. Until Florida stopped allowing kosher meals in 2007, prisoners who opted for meals prepared under Jewish dietary guidelines were assigned to one of 13 facilities which provided kosher to inmates.
The kosher rules excluded pork and avoided mixing dairy and meat. They also satisfied or exceeded the food preparation requirements for other faiths like Muslims and Seventh-day Adventists. The Religious Dietary Study Group, commissioned in 2007 to advise the Florida Department of corrections said the additional expense of providing kosher meals to 250 prisoners was about $ 146,000 a year. The committee leading the group included a rabbi, an imam and legal experts. The study group warned the state that ending the kosher meals could lead to violation of law. Referring to a prisoner put in such a predicament, the study group observed, “He may either eat the non-kosher food and fail to obey his religious laws or not eat the non-kosher food and starve.”
However, Florida decided to ignore the advice of religious and legal experts and ended the kosher meal program. Since 2010, kosher meals have been provided to only about a dozen prisoners held at a single facility near Miami. However, that program is open only to prisoners who are eligible for assignment to work squad and have reached the age of 59.
The lawsuit filed by the Justice Department alleged, “By refusing to offer kosher meals, the Florida Department of Corrections forces hundreds of its prisoners to violate their core religious beliefs on a daily basis.”