February 16, 2009

5,360 Inmates in Federal Prisons Request Kosher Meals

New York…Kosher Today Feature Editor…According to data provided by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP), a record 5,360 inmates in federal prisons are receiving kosher meals in all of the FBOP’s 114 facilities across the United States. Of those, 3,268 identify themselves as Jewish. While there have been several challenges to kosher by some state prison officials, the FBOP guides itself by a number of court decisions that mandate the kosher food. In interviews with FBOP officials, KosherToday has learned that in each facility’s main kitchen, a room is designated for the preparation of all “certified religious diet meals", the FBOP term for kosher. All hot meals are commercially pre-packaged and frozen, and certified according to a reliable, nationally recognized Orthodox Jewish standard. Food trays for inmates that are determined by the chaplain to require a specific certification are distributed through the main serving line at the regular meal times to facilitate all inmates eating together. Kosher products are also available in the inmate commissary. To receive kosher meals, inmates submit a request through the local chaplain. It is not necessary, however, to confirm an inmate’s particular religion, which explains why only 3,268 inmates are self identified as Jewish.

Felicia Ponce, a public affairs specialist at the FBOP, estimates that the kosher requests are predominately religious in nature, albeit not all Jewish. Ponce attests that previously many of the kosher requests were motivated by perceived health or diet concerns, but since a recent FBOP shift to serve more balanced meals, this has not been common. All meals are now consistent in portion size and menu throughout the entire agency. Despite the change, the number of kosher inmates in the Federal prisons has still increased significantly over the last decade, although exact figures were not available. Upon request, the FBOP also provides inmates with grape juice, challah and other essential religious foods for the Shabbos and Jewish holidays. “Religious dietary observance is protected as a constitutional right,” said Ponce. “The Bureau of Prisons takes very seriously its responsibilities to uphold the constitution and the rights it gives all individuals, even those who are incarcerated.” Federal prison officials have in recent years become far more knowledgeable about kosher, even visiting shows like Kosherfest.