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Do Prison Inmates Have Meal Option Rights?

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. | Last updated on

Prison inmates are not granted the same rights as free citizens. Their rights should be limited. But to what extent? Surely they have the right to practice religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment. In fact, in many prisons, the practice of religion is encouraged. But what if such practice requires dietary restrictions?

In a recent case, a New York inmate, David "DeAndre" Williams, claimed that as a devout practicing Nazarite Jew with a dairy allergy, he couldn't eat the meat, vined fruit, or dairy products in prison meals. When served these items, he tried to trade with fellow inmates, but was reprimanded since food trading violated prison rules. Williams claimed he hasn't had "three hots a day" for the last seven years, and has sued the state to get accommodating prison meals. Is this fair?

Freedom of Religion and Dietary Restrictions: A Balance of Burdens

Prisons must accommodate proven religious dietary restrictions, to some extent. There must be a balance between the burden placed on the prisoner practicing his religion, weighed against the burden on the prison to offer an alternative menu. Where exactly that tipping point lies varies from prison to prison.

Administrative Burdens

In looking at the administrative burden, the answer is, it depends. Some prisons make all of their meals in-house. Think Red and her gang from Orange is the New Black. However, modern trends in prison administration are moving towards outsourcing food service. For instance, Aramark served over 380 million prison meals in 2015, and that number is expected to climb. In addition, many prisons have created kosher kitchens to accommodate religious dietary requirements, and so a prisoner's request for vegan kosher, as in William's case, shouldn't be too hard of a request to fill. It is getting harder and harder for prisons to say the administrative burden lies in their favor.

Cost Burden

But what about the cost burden? With prison populations escalating and government budgets shrinking, the math is not working in the prisoner's favor. According to the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates (ACFSA), some jails feed prisoners for as little as $1.20 per meal. With that budget, not many options exist.

What's the Verdict?

In Williams' case, the federal court sided with the prison, but the appellate court tossed the case back down to the federal court and told them to have a second look at it. There, it turns out the prison already had a kosher kitchen, and so the appellate court thought the prison was just being cruel about things, and could find a low-burden, low-cost way to accommodate Williams. But the court recognized that this really is a case by case basis. Costs and burdens really depend on the dietary restrictions and the prison.

If you feel like an inmate's meal options are not appropriate, either due to religious, health, or other parameters, contact a local attorney to see if the situation can be improved.

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