Jews do not belong in prison. We belong in the work force, and in free society, living by and honoring the law of the land, contributing positively to the commonweal where we live. The Torah establishes clear guidelines and expectations that living Jewishly entails not only observing the Shabbat, and praying three times daily, but also being kind and charitable, honorable and trustworthy, loving and caring—and law-abiding.
Nevertheless, life is life, and some few go astray. Embodying this phenomenon in the Year of the Kakistocracy, both major Presidential candidates can boast a Jewish “mechutan” (father of their son-in-law) who has spent serious prison time for federal crimes involving felony fraud and related crookedness.
What nachas! A gold mine for future Jewish historians.
When a Jew ends up in prison, his or her Jewish obligations do not abate. Indeed, society often deems prison not only as a place for punishment, but also for rehabilitation. Thus, an inmate is taught to redirect life’s focus towards living the honest and clean life. That is secular society’s perspective, and that is Judaism’s focus: to shape up and to straighten out, more properly structuring one’s life and improving personal discipline.
Towards that end, several Jewish prisoners have asked federal and state prison services over the years to provide them with kosher food. The demand may seem strange: You swindled the public, and now you want a rabbi’s certification for what you eat? Are you certified nuts?
However, the request for kosher food indeed can be part of a person’s road to rehabilitation. Moreover—frankly—the food in prison is so bad that, well, what prisoner would not prefer kosher food in the hoosegow? In addition, those who live strictly according to Koranic requirements and Sharia law requiring the eating of Halal foods also have reason to request a kosher prison diet.
The thing is, kosher food costs more. Rabbis must be paid for their professional certification services. Kosher-compliant factories sometimes must incur extra costs and equipment, and they also may incur added labor costs in cleaning machinery and otherwise conforming to the certifiers’ requirements. In addition, certain kosher-approved ingredients cost more.
Repeatedly, therefore, prison systems have resisted when prisoners request kosher food. First, the added costs burden their prison budgets. Second, many prisons are located in isolated communities. How many kosher butchers are there in such vacation spots as Greater Sing-Sing or beautiful downtown San Quentin? Prison officials, therefore, are particularly wary when they perceive that prisoners who are requesting kosher food are not even religiously observant. If green eggs and ham is good for St. Patrick’s Day, why can’t prisoners learn to relish green salami? Prison officials therefore frequently resist accommodating requests for kosher foods.
In our next column, we will look at some recent major court decisions that have defined the obligations of prison officials to accommodate inmates’ requests for kosher foods.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, Adjunct Professor of Advanced Torts law and the law of California Civil Procedure at UCI Law School and at Loyola Law School, is former Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review and is Rav of Young Israel of Orange County.