Judge rules that denying Michigan prisoners meat and dairy kosher meals violates their religious rights.
Jewish prisoners in Michigan won the right to eat meat and dairy kosher meals on Shabbat and some Jewish holidays, according to a court ruling issued Jan. 30 by Judge Linda Parker in the U.S. District Court Eastern District in Detroit.
The case dates to 2013, when the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) transferred Jewish and Muslim inmates to a vegan diet as a “one-size-fits-all” religious meal solution.
A class-action lawsuit, handled by the Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University led by Professor Daniel Manville, was filed at that time on behalf of Jewish inmates Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin. The suit argued that a vegan diet lacked kosher meat and dairy and didn’t adhere to kosher principles of preparation, such as proscriptions against contamination with non-kosher utensils and prep areas.
A proposed settlement of the class-action suit was reached Oct. 12, 2019, which granted Michigan’s Jewish prisoners the ability to have kosher meals. But the question about whether inmates could receive meat and dairy kosher meals wasn’t argued until Dec. 11, 2019, at a fairness hearing held in front of Judge Parker.
There are 600 Jewish prisoners among Michigan’s 33,000-person prison population. Of those 600, between 85 and 193, residing in 16 different correctional facilities, are approved for kosher meals.
In her Jan. 30 opinion, Parker ruled that to deny the kosher meat and dairy meals to the Jewish prisoners would be a violation of their closely held religious views.
According to her ruling, MDOC will provide participating Jewish prisoners who keep kosher with two certified kosher meals per day from a certified kosher source, either an outside vendor or an MDOC certified kosher kitchen. Those inmates are also entitled to meat or dairy meals every Shabbat as well as on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shavuot, when inmates will also receive a cheesecake to celebrate the holiday.
To receive the meals, inmates must have been approved for the vegan diet or “live kosher” for 60 days prior to requesting the kosher meals. MDOC may obtain information through its chaplains to confirm a prisoner’s sincerely held religious belief.
“MDOC wanted inmates to buy kosher meat from the prison store,” Manville said. “The judge found that unreasonable for a couple of reasons: the cost of food in the store was too high and the quantity and quality of food in store was called into question.”
The judge also rejected MDOC’s claims that providing the kosher meat and dairy meals would be too expensive. MDOC estimated the cost of providing the meals at about $10,000.
Dairy is already provided to inmates, Manville said. “However, inmates on the vegan option were prohibited from drinking any milk. If they did, they would receive a misconduct ticket. That’s just crazy.”
Manville said he has 14 days to draft an injunctive order that will specify details as to how the judgment will be enforced. Prisoners should start receiving the kosher meat meals within 30 days, he added.