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New York State prisons respond to religious dietary needs with enactment of kosher and halal food bill

30 Dec 2023, Jail News, by

Gov. Kathy Hochul signs a bill ensuring religious dietary needs with more kosher and halal choices in New York State prisons.

New York State prisons respond to religious dietary needs with enactment of kosher and halal food bill - Inmate Lookup

Incarcerated individuals in New York state prisons will soon gain increased access to kosher and halal food options.

Governor Kathy Hochul recently signed a bill ensuring the availability of religiously appropriate food items in prison commissaries and vending machines, with the law scheduled to take effect in September.

Legal battles across the country often center around the availability of kosher and halal food in prisons, referencing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. This act upholds the rights of individuals in correctional facilities to religious services, including food that adheres to their dietary restrictions.

While in New York state prisons, mess halls currently offer kosher and halal options for all three meals; commissaries, where inmates supplement their often modest and unappetizing meals; and vending machines in visiting areas pose challenges in finding religiously certified choices.

A 2018 report revealed that 12.3% of the state’s prison population identified as Muslim, 6.5% as Jewish, and 3.9% as part of the Nation of Islam.

The new bill addresses this issue by ensuring that commissaries and vending machines provide food meeting the requirements of halal, kosher, and other religious dietary needs for incarcerated individuals. The prices for these religiously certified items will be equivalent to those of non-religious alternatives.

Rebecca Taxman, an associate policy writer with the Tzedek Association, a Jewish prison reform organization that actively supported the bill, reports that the organization consistently receives complaints from incarcerated individuals and their families in New York.

Taxman recounted a personal experience of visiting someone and finding kosher options available outside the dining hall at the facility. However, she observed that after a couple of months, the availability of kosher options completely ceased. She also reported that her Muslim students encountered similar difficulties in finding halal food in facilities across the state.

One of the bill’s sponsors, assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, explained that the state must provide foods with certifications that Jewish diners prefer, such as those from Haredi organizations or the Orthodox Union.

Eichenstein conveyed to a news outlet, Forward, that it’s a parity bill, asserting the need for an option catering to religious individuals to be available in tandem with whatever the existing system provides.

Jewish and Muslim loved ones used to bring halal and kosher goods during prison visits to circumvent restrictions. However, last year, the authorities forbade families from bringing items to prisons.

Eichenstein expressed that he has been actively working to encourage prisons to offer more kosher and halal options since he first learned about the issue during visits to New York state prisons a few years ago. It was wrong, he remembered thinking.

Following the passage of the bill, Taxman engaged in discussions with New York’s Board of Rabbis to strategize the implementation of the new policy in September. Her goal is to ensure that commissaries stock a range of items. Tzedek is also dedicated to enhancing the quality of kosher meals served in mess halls, addressing concerns such as lower protein content compared to standard prison fare.

Her motivation for these efforts aligns with a sentiment familiar to many Jewish parents: prioritizing eating. She stressed the significance of food, stating that it is a fundamental aspect of a person’s life in general and particularly crucial within the prison system.



Photo by Ron Lach :