Sunday, January 24, 2010

More on Religion in Prisons: Five Faiths, Four Meals?

Recently, we discussed prison and religion in the context of Patrick McCollum's suit to acknowledge the need for a paid Wiccan chaplain in CDCR institutions. The brand new Prison Law blog led us to a piece on the Fresno Bee, which reports that CDCR plans to add a Halal food option to its already existing Kosher meat and vegetarian fare.

The department is seeking the change in the face of pressure from several Muslim inmates who have filed lawsuits alleging discrimination. Inmate attorneys have seized on the department's decision in 2006 to offer special kosher meals to Jewish inmates.

"They've said Jewish prisoners have a right to practice their religion in a certain way, but Muslim prisoners don't have that same right," said Nathaniel Garrett, the court-appointed attorney for Menefield, who filed a civil rights complaint in federal court in 2008.

Victims-rights advocates counter that the state made a mistake in offering any religious meals. Prisoners lost those rights when they committed a crime, said Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California.

"It would be cruel if we denied them food ... but we're not denying them nourishment," she said. "This country is made up of all kinds of religions. Where is it going to end?"

This may seem like a relatively minor issue, but it has a rich history, that has to do with the struggle of Muslim inmates to obtain rights and their incredible contribution to inmate litigation in California. Some of the important religious struggles in prison have had to do with concerns over safety and riots, whose roots are in the radicalized Black Muslim population of the 1970s. The relationship between prison administration and the Muslim inmate population has been a concern for the Federal Bureau of Prisons for quite some time, and some are concerned that the post-9/11 world has led to "Islamophobia" in correctional institutions.

While reading materials and worship gatherings have the potential to incite rebellion, food is a significantly less controversial matter. The issue is the importance of religion vis-a-vis the expense involved. In this particular case, before even engaging in that balance, it is a case of religious discrimination, plain and simple. Since the prison already offers Kosher and vegetarian meals, it would appear that the argument raised by Ms. Salarno has clay feet (and that's before even looking at the argument for morality or on its merits). The question that CDCR does not need to currently face would be the detail with which they should comply with minute differences in religious requirements for different sects (for example, there are several different levels of Jewish Kosher certification; there is glatt certification to consider, ethnic differences, etc).

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