Can You Get Kosher Food In Prison?

In my prison experience, inmates are not seen as people by the criminal justice system, the prison system, or the prison administration and staff. It seems like when a person is convicted of a crime — no matter if it’s something financial, like failing to pay child support or something as heinous as first degree murder — their identity as an individual and as a living, breathing human being is taken away by society.

However, because of laws in this country, there is one area where it is incredibly difficult to ignore an inmate’s rights, and that’s all about freedom of religion. Rulings in cases over the years — some of which have reached the Supreme Court — have established that inmates still have the right to freedom of religion, even when they are incarcerated.

So, when someone is behind bars, they can cite their religion to get around some of the rules. For example, jewelry isn’t allowed behind bars with the exception of something religious, like a cross necklace. 

Inmates with special religious exceptions also have access to things like prayer rugs, and a prison’s chaplain will usually create some kind of service or worship group for every religion that is represented in the prison population.

While these things don’t really cost the prison a lot of extra money to honor religious preferences of the inmates, that’s not the case when it comes to Kosher food. Feeding an inmate Kosher meals usually triples the price (at least) of the cost of food. In prison, they do everything on the cheap. 

This leads us to today’s blog post: can you get Kosher food in prison?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • What is it like to keep Kosher in prison?
  • Can you request Kosher food in prison if you’re not Jewish?

What is it like to keep Kosher in prison?

First of all, I am not Jewish. So, I will answer today’s blog posts based on interviews I have read and conversations I’ve had with prison inmates who attempted to keep Kosher. The answer to today’s blog post is yes, you can get Kosher food in prison. However, when an inmate is committed to keeping Kosher, it can be a challenge.

Most prisons — no matter if they are state or federal — provide Kosher meals. But, how they go about this definitely varies by facility. Some prisons provide evening Kosher meals that look like TV dinners in a small, microwavable tray. During the day, they usually provide sack lunches that feature things like lunch meats, cheese, and uncut fruits and veggies.

There are a few prisons in the United States that actually have a Kosher kitchen and have a hot Kosher program, but that’s extremely rare.

From what I understand, it can be extremely stressful to keep Kosher behind bars, but it’s not because of the limited access to food. Because guards don’t trust any inmate, many of them believe that inmates who request a Kosher diet are lying just so they can get better food.

There are guards who will call out “fake Jews” for lying to get into the Kosher program, and they get angry because the food is expensive compared to regular prison food. Other guards get upset about some inmates receiving different food than others because they believe everyone should be punished in the same way.

Then there is religious discrimination, as many guards are Christian and don’t believe the prison should be forced to honor “food laws” that Jesus didn’t follow. 

There were always those guards that would find something to harass the inmates about during each and every shift. The drama is real, and the power can go to people’s heads. Apparently, it can be even worse for inmates who keep Kosher.

Can you request Kosher food in prison if you aren’t Jewish?

This is a difficult question to answer. Technically, Kosher meals can only be requested by inmates who are practicing Jews. But, how do you prove that? If an inmate says they are Jewish, prison officials don’t necessarily have to believe them.

Kosher food is actually quite popular in prison, and that continues to rise. Most prison officials will likely tell you that this is because non-Jewish inmates are lying so they can have access to better food.

Prison food is absolutely disgusting. It’s all cheap, processed slop that has no real nutritional value or flavor whatsoever, I don’t care what anyone says. 

I worked in the food service warehouse during my incarceration, and I witnessed first hand all of the food products being delivered to the prison for the inmates. Outside of loaves of bread from a local bakery and a little bit of produce (damaged and discarded by everyone else), everything was delivered to us in a large can, box, or bag. There is nothing fresh or healthy for the inmates to eat. So, if you are looking at a long term sentence, it makes sense for a lot of inmates to request Kosher food even if they aren’t Jewish because the food is better.

Gary Friedman, a former Jewish corrections chaplain, knows his way around the dietary rules and regulations in the American corrections system. He believes that the national trend of an increase in Kosher food requests is because of meal safety, not religion.

“The primary motivation is, they think it’s safer,” Friedman said. “I can’t count how many times it’s happened, how many times it has come up, that you hear stories how (jails) buy food that is out of date or how inmate workers are tainting the food. So they think (kosher meals) are safer and it is of better quality.”

When it comes down to it, the law requires that inmates with sincere religious beliefs must be provided with religious meals. However, it can be difficult to prove, and there’s no doubt that many inmates try to take advantage so they aren’t forced to survive on regular prison food.

Do you think inmates should be allowed Kosher food, if requested? Let us know in the comments below.

Sources:  

Kosher Prison Food Not Only For Jews

https://forward.com/schmooze/149771/kosher-prison-food-not-only-for-jews/

The Surprising Popularity of Kosher Food In Prison

https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/278716/the-surprising-popularity-of-kosher-food-in-prison

About the Author Natalie

Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.

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