In Depth

Kosher prison food lawsuit goes forward

Bruce Rich didn’t fare so well in the Florida justice system in 1999, when a Miami-Dade County jury found him guilty of murdering his parents and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

But he scored a victory last week when an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling put him one step closer to receiving kosher meals at Union Correctional Institution in North Florida — and hundreds of other Jewish inmates to do likewise throughout the Florida Department of Corrections system.

Rich filed suit against the department in 2010 alleging that the denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The U.S. Department of Justice also filed suit against the Corrections Department in Miami federal court last year alleging the same violation.

The denials force him, as an Orthodox Jew, “to choose between his religious practice and adequate nutrition,’’ said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The fund filed an appeal for Rich after a federal district court last year dismissed the suit, which now returns to district court.

Ann Howard, Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said the department wouldn’t comment on pending litigation, though she did say the state provides a vegetarian/vegan diet for inmates who request it.

Goodrich called the decision “a great victory for human rights and religious liberty. Even prisoners retain basic human rights, and the state cannot sacrifice those rights on the altar of bureaucratic convenience.”

She said Rich — sometimes know by the elongated family name Richenthal — who shot parents Blanche and Irwin, “has been a leader on this issue in the Florida prison system.’’

Rich and his allies — 18 organizations that filed five “friend of the court’’ briefs, including the ACLU, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Committee, the Miami Beach-based Aleph Institute, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Hindu American Foundation — want Florida to join the 35 states that provide kosher food to inmates as a matter of policy.

That it doesn’t is “in my opinion embarrassing, since Florida has the second or third largest Jewish population in the country and is supposedly respectful of religious things,’’ said Rabbi Menachem M. Katz, who heads a prison mission for the Aleph Institute, a Chabad Lubavich social services group based at The Shul of Bal Harbour.

“There are 35 states, even Texas [which Becket successfully sued] with much smaller Jewish populations, or none in their system, where it’s policy,’’ he said.

In fact, Florida did maintain a “Jewish dietary accommodation’’ from 2003-2005, then scrapped the program as expensive and burdensome, despite a study group’s recommendations to keep it, and has been fighting reinstatement ever since.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states and the federal prison must give prisoners special diets if they request them for religious reasons.

In the appeal, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that “the evidence submitted by the [corrections department] on summary judgment in support of its position is insubstantial,” and that the Department of Corrections made “meager efforts to explain why Florida’s prisons are so different from the penal institutions that now provide kosher meals such that the plans adopted by those other institutions would not work in Florida.”

Katz said it costs about $2 a day to feed prisoners a standard diet, about $4.50 for kosher. He estimates there are 400 Jews in Florida lockups, not all of whom would demand kosher food, which many Florida county jails provide as a matter of policy.

Rich, who turns 65 in June, has had to buy certified kosher products from the prison canteen, like canned tuna and crackers, to maintain a ritually correct diet, said Goodrich.

“He’s lost a lot of weight,’’ he added.

A jury found that the debt-ridden Bruce Rich killed his parents, a North Miami Beach couple in their 70s, so he could inherit their $215,000 Keystone Point home.

At the time, 1995, Rich still owed $29,000 to the U.S. Attorney’s Office from a 1980s insurance-fraud scheme in which he tried to fake his own death. He ended up serving time in federal prison.

But the issue is much bigger than Bruce Rich, said Katz.

“There are people incarcerated for DUI, bad checks, driving with suspended license. Just because they made a mistake, why should some shlub driving on an expired license be denied his religious rights? Why is the state government standing in the way of that? They would never dare deny a Muslim [ritually correct] halal food in Guantanamo, but a Jewish inmate in Florida they deny?’’

Katz said the state has been providing prepackaged kosher food to inmates at the South Florida Reception Center through a “pilot program’’ allowing him to verify kosher certification. He added that Aleph was on the verge of launching a kosher kitchen at one South Florida lockup, but the Department of Corrections last week put it on hold.

Katz acknowledges that non-Jewish inmates or Jews who aren’t observant might try to game the system for what they believe is better food, but said there are safeguards. For example, he monitors some inmates’ canteen purchases, including Bruce Rich’s, to make sure “they’re not buying ham sandwiches.’’

When he considers an inmate request for kosher, “they have to at least be able to explain what kosher is. If you can’t articulate it, how can you demand it?’’

Goodrich said the federal system has religious diet standards, the baseline being “sincere religious belief.’’

“If you’re on the kosher diet and you get caught [with non-kosher food], you’re suspended [from the kosher program].’’

Rich, like inmates of other faiths, became more devout behind bars than he ever was on the outside, said Katz, and he’s just one of many.

Most probably weren’t kosher before prison, but Katz noted that “there are different levels of kosher,’’ such as keeping the dietary laws at home but not in restaurants, or foregoing pork and shellfish but using dishes for meat and dairy interchangeably.

Katz said that when Gov. Rick Scott attended a ceremony for war veterans at The Shul in January, they discussed the corrections department’s opposition to the policy.

According to Katz, Scott said, “ ‘I understand the importance of this and I want this to happen.’ We gave him a plaque for defending religious rights.’’

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