The Allure of Kosher Meals in NY Prisons

by Daniel A. Rosen |

According to a recent story in Tablet, as many as seven percent of inmates in New York’s prison system are identifying as Jewish, primarily so they can receive kosher meals. If that’s accurate, there are twice as many Jews as Nation of Islam members locked up in New York.

This number of “self-declared” Jews may be an exaggeration of as much as ten times the number of those practicing who are recognized by their heritage as Jewish.

Across the system, pre-packaged cold kosher meals are made available to anyone who identifies as Jewish. And in one New York prison, the Greenhaven Correctional Facility, a full kosher kitchen produces hot meals overseen by an Orthodox rabbi at the 2500-inmate maximum security lockup.

Greenhaven CF serves kosher hot dogs, chicken quarters, specially prepared rice, and other observant meals following the kashrut laws. The dedicated kitchen separates meat from milk and dairy, pulls apart vegetables instead of cutting them, and makes a special effort for Passover. Many inmates try to transfer there just to get on the specialized meal program.

That program is only available to 70 inmates at the facility. An offender can register in any faith that he chooses to declare, and change that designation once a year. Rabbis pencil in the words “self-declared” on the religious designation documents of those who aren’t Jewish by heritage but identify as such, often for the dietary benefits.

Most self-declared Jewish inmates receive the packaged Kosher “Cold Alternative Diet” or CAD. Dinner is usually cold cuts and instant soup, while lunches consist of boiled eggs, tuna salad, peanut butter and jelly, fruit cups, and cheese.

Even many Muslim inmates prefer the CAD, as it also meets halal religious requirements; the regular state diet is supposed to be halal as well, but few inmates trust that is actually is.

The cold kosher diet is also popular simply because it comes pre-packaged and many items are vacuum-sealed. Inmates can rest assured that no one’s tampered with their food. It’s also easier to barter with, and the kosher food items are valuable commodities. In the state’s SHUs, or Special Housing Units, the packaged kosher items are particularly valuable commodities, traded regularly for stamps and slid under the doors of those confined to their cells.

During holidays, outside Jewish organizations donate supplies for observing the holidays and send special treats. The Aleph Institute in Florida sends Jewish inmates Passover boxes with gefilte fish, matzoh, and other festive items every year, but is often unclear about how many actual Jews exist in the system. And religious personnel inside the facilities are not legally allowed to differentiate between self-declared and hereditary Jews. The packages outside groups send are part of the prison economy like much else inside the walls, where there’s always a buyer for decent food that helps inmates survive.

Source: Originally written for Prison Legal News.

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