After more than a decade of legal wrangling, a federal judge has ordered the Florida Department of Corrections to provide kosher meals to inmates, rejecting the state's argument that the religious diet is prohibitively expensive.
Corrections officials are already serving the kosher meals but have refused to acknowledge that they are required to do so under the federal "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act" law enacted in 2000.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the agency three years ago as part of a drawn-out fight over the kosher meals, an option not only for Jewish prisoners but for Muslim and Seventh-Day Adventists whose religions also proscribe dietary restrictions.
The lawsuit challenged corrections officials' claim that they were not required to provide the meals, as well as the rules the agency used to determine who was eligible to receive the meals.
About 10,000 inmates receive kosher meals now being served at all of the state's institutions, and corrections officials have no plans to discontinue the special diet, according to Department of Corrections spokesman McKinley Lewis.
"If you want a kosher meal, you can have a kosher meal," he said.
The department started offering the kosher meals in 2004 to Jewish prisoners at 13 facilities and transferred inmates who were eligible for the meals to those institutions. The agency expanded the program to inmates of all faiths in 2006 but halted it the following year before reinstating it as a pilot project at a single prison in 2010, serving fewer than 20 prisoners.
A year after the lawsuit was filed, the department again began serving kosher meals and promised to have the meals available to all inmates by last July.
Last summer, the department switched to all-cold meals, consisting largely of peanut butter and sardines, served twice a day, prompting some inmates to complain that the unappetizing diet was aimed at discouraging prisoners from signing up for the plan.
"…It is hard to understand how defendants can have a compelling state interest in not spending money that they are already voluntarily spending on the exact thing they claim to have an interest in not providing," U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz wrote in a 31-page opinion issued Thursday.
"Furthermore, not only are defendants voluntarily spending the money on providing kosher meals, they have repeatedly represented that they are committed to providing kosher meals" and that the current religious diet plan is sustainable, both monetarily and security-wise, the judge wrote. "Thus, defendants' compelling state interest argument is substantially dampened by its voluntary decision to provide kosher meals."
The kosher meals cost about $3.56 per inmate per day, compared to $1.89 per day for regular meals. The department estimated that the costs for making kosher meals available to all inmates could total between $384,000 and $12.3 million, depending on how many inmates signed up for the program and decided to stick with it.
But even the department's "worst-case scenario" estimate equates to just .005 of its total annual budget, Seitz wrote Thursday.
"Clearly, in pure numbers these amounts are not insignificant. However, in an overall budget of nearly $2.3 billion per year, these amounts are relatively small," Seitz wrote.
While nearly 10,000 prisoners —- about 10 percent of the total inmate population —- receive kosher meals today, corrections officials expect participation in the program to decline to about 1.5 to 2 percent. In the five prisons where the meals have been served for a full year, the participation rate dropped by one third.
The department, which has spent more than $400,000 in legal costs fighting the lawsuit, last year contended that the kosher meals were prohibitively expensive.
If just 1.5 to 2 percent of the total prison population joined the program, the department would spend up to $1.7 million a year, not including extra costs for disposable utensils and plates, lawyers for the department wrote in a brief last year.
"For a cash-strapped agency like the Department of Corrections, these amounts are not a 'relatively minor expense,' given other crucial needs that compete for funds," Florida Assistant Attorney General Lisa Kuhlman Tietig wrote.
But the department's lawyers failed to show that the cost of the program has affected prison operations in any way, Seitz wrote Thursday.
"There is no evidence that any program s have been cut, that any staff has been cut, or that there has been any harm to any aspect of defendants' operations," she wrote.
Seitz also ordered the department to stop using a "zero-tolerance" policy that removed inmates from the kosher meal plan if they were caught eating regular meals or purchasing non-kosher food from the canteen, something corrections officials have already abandoned.
And Seitz also ruled that prison officials can't kick inmates off of the kosher plan if the inmates miss 10 percent or more of their meals in a month, another policy the department has discontinued.
Seitz criticized the department for complaining about the costs of the special diet but not using its own policies to restrict who receives the meals.
"Defendants have at their disposal an alternative means to contain costs without burdening the religious exercise of those prisoners with a sincere religious belief requiring them to keep kosher. To date, however, defendants have actively chosen not to use these alternative cost reduction methods," she wrote.