Keeping Kosher in Prison

January 27th, 2014

The Times ran a feature about the increasingly large number of prisoners who have sought kosher meals. The article suggests, and I’m sure many cynics would agree, that most of these prisoners are not acting on true, devout beliefs in Jewish dietary laws, but instead are seeking the kosher meal because on average they are of a higher quality.

I asked my buddy Shon Hopwood about his views on this. He wrote in:

Kosher meals actually contain fresh fruits and vegetables, whereas the other meals do not. At the prison I was at, you only needed to take a short quiz on Judaism or one of the Muslim religions and you could receive the kosher meal. The number of people who sign up, and it was a lot, tells you just how bad the food is in prison.
There was one evil prison guard who made it her mission in life to make sure that those with the kosher meal never ate anything non-kosher. If she caught someone, she’d then take them off the kosher meal list.

Rabbi Dovid Goldstein of Chabad Lubavitch of Houston is the head rabbi for the entire Texas prison system. His job, among countless other things, is to supervise the kosher kitchens, and to certify who can partake in the kosher meals. As an aside the Becket Fund waged a long legal battle against Texas to ensure that inmates had access to Kosher meals. As a result of that litigation, Texas consolidated all Jewish prisoners in the system into a few prisoners, and installed kosher kitchens at those locations.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit a prison outside of Houston with Rabbi Goldstein, and look at the kosher kitchen, and meet with the Jewish inmates who participate in the program. Every week Rabbi Goldstein visits the prison, makes sure everything is kosher (literally and figuratively!), and leads a one-hour discussion on religion in the chapel (a huge schmata is placed over the cross on the wall).

So how is it determined who can partake in the meals? This is a really, really difficult theological question that many modern Jews struggle with–who is a Jew. Apparently in other systems, quizzes about religion are given, or stuff like that. Rabbi Goldstein applies the traditional Orthodox approach to judaism–if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish. There are no half-jews. A Jewish father doesn’t get you anything. This presents difficulty when an inmate insists one parent is Jewish, but won’t say which one. Ultimately, Rabbi Goldstein is responsible for making the decision.

At the prison I visited, there were about 15 or 20 inmates who participated in the kosher program and attended the classes. They take shifts working in the kitchen, and help prepare and serve all the food. The kitchen itself was a cage (literally) inside the mess hall. It is essential that there be no cross-contamination with unkosher food, so all the dishes, pots, pans, and other utensils are kept separate from the general population. Only those who are familiar with the rules of Kosher can participate. Inmates wait on line at the mess hall, but branch off to get their kosher meals. From what I can tell, the kitchen looked immaculate.

Sitting with the inmates in the chaplain was a fascinating experience. Rabbi Goldstein gave a lecture on spirituality and using your faith to become a better person, and the inmates seemed to be paying very close attention. The guys also took an interest in me, and were peppering me with lots of questions. They were happy just to have someone else to talk to. I resisted (as hard as I could) from telling them I was a law professor. (As sympathetic as I am, I am not at all qualified to be a jailhouse lawyer, in addition to not being licensed in Texas, and was not prepared to answer the impending barrage of habeas questions). I talked to a couple of them one-on-one, and they seemed genuine in their desires to learn more about Judaism, and reform themselves. Rabbi Goldstein later told me that a few of them were also trying to prove to him that they were Jewish, without identify a Jewish mother.

After my visit, I asked Rabbi Goldstein whether he thought that the inmates seeking kosher meals were dong so out of a religious belief, or because the food was better. He told me it didn’t really matter. In his mind, he was not only enriching their diets, but their souls. All of the inmates that participate in the kosher program are expected to attend Rabbi Goldstein’s weekly class. The Rabbi told me that even if they are being forced to sit there, they are still being exposed to some spirituality–and maybe, just maybe it will impact them. Maybe it will help with their redemptions, and to become better people. Chabad rabbis love a captive audience.

I asked the Rabbi how many of the prisoners stay kosher once whey leave prison. He said he didn’t know. Some of the inmates keep in touch with him, and some even go to temple once in a while. But for him, having their attention, and atending to the religious yearnings of people who are in serious need of support made the endeavor worth it.

As an aside, during my brief visit to the prison, I was struck by how significant food was. I’ve had similar discussions with Shon about this. When you are an inmate, there aren’t many luxuries that can make your life easier. One of the few, tiny perks, is the ability to buy food from the commissary. Inmates are given an amount of money they can spend each month at the commissary. At a specific time, they line up with sacks, and hand their orders of items they want. The inmates I spoke with were very concerned with the availability of kosher food in the commissary, and the fact that the kosher food cost significantly more than the unkosher food–so much so that it was eating into their tiny budgets. Apparently the cream-cheese was kosher, but no longer had a kosher symbol on it.

The rabbi is only allowed to bring in kosher food from the outside of the prison, if it was donated to a “trust fund,” and all of the participating kosher inmates are allowed to partake. So one of the gentleman’s mother mails each year his favorite Baklava for Chanukkah. I went in January, and they were still talking about how delicious it was.

Going to the prison was an eye-opening experience.  I’ll admit, it is a bit scary. Right before you enter the main prison area, there is a sign that says something to the effect of, “enter this area at your own risk. We will not open this door for any reason, even if you are held hostage.” Great, I thought. Walking up and down the cellblocks was harrowing. Everyone walks around, wearing the same jump suit and sneakers. They all hold their flip flops (or crocs as it were), as those are stolen, I learned. There are guards everywhere, watching everything you do. There are lines on the floor, and inmates are only allowed to walk on certain sides of the line. When I first arrived, one of the smart-ass inmates said, “Oh man, you just missed a massive riot. Someone got stabbed.” He was joking, but I didn’t realize this right away. I was told this is a fairly stable prison, with very little violence (relatively speaking, I suppose).

Now, the prison I visited was medium security, and was for significant offenses. The people I spoke with were convicted of murder, rape, and other serious crimes. I cannot forget that, and at the same time, while talking to them as human beings, I forced myself to put that out of mind (in truth, I only asked the Rabbi after the trip what each inmate was convicted of). Some of these guys were in for life, others for 30 to 40 years. One of the inmates, convicted of statutory rape of a 17-year-old (not his first offense) was sentenced in his early 20s, and he is now in his 50s. It is staggering to think that he has been in prisoner longer than I’ve been alive.

I encourage everyone–especially law students–to volunteer to visit (I’m sure you can find some group that sponsors you).