View of kosher food aisle

Kosher meals in state-run correctional facilities have been replaced by a vegan option, which the Arizona Department of Corrections says meets the standards for all religious dietary restrictions. Yet the change raises concerns that prisoners who rely on the kosher meal plan, including Jews and Muslims, will not be able to maintain their commitment to observing religious dietary laws.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, is a vegan and an advocate for veganism. Yet he expressed concern that without proper supervision, the ADC’s vegan meal plan would not meet kosher standards.

“When it comes to something that was kosher vegan, that would be the ideal kosher in my opinion,” Yanklowitz said. “But just vegan without a kosher supervision would not be enough for a traditionally practicing Jew.”

In a July 2 notice to inmates, the Arizona Department of Corrections announced that “effective Aug. 1, 2020, religious and kosher diets are being replaced with a plant-based vegan common fare meal which meets religious requirements for kosher, Halal and all other religions.”

The ADC released a statement that said the new meal plan has been “reviewed by imams and rabbis,” but did not offer any details about the review process.

The new vegan plan costs the same as the kosher plan, at $2.06 per meal. The Phoenix New Times reported that about 1,210 inmates were on the kosher diet when the change was implemented.

“The new Common Fare Meal provides accommodations and the ability to be more inclusive for the changing dietary needs of those incarcerated,” the ADC said.

In a lawsuit filed against the department on Aug. 5, Patrick Bearup, a self-described Messianic Jew currently incarcerated in an ADC facility, alleged that the new meal plan and prison kitchens have not been properly certified by a rabbinic authority.

The ADC “has not provided proof that the new vegan fare is kosher, remains kosher and is supervised by a local rabbinic supervisor during the process of serving food to Plaintiff now that ADC plans to serve open food items,” the complaint read. “Defendant [Director David] Shinn has not shown that the kitchen is certified as kosher to process the vegan food without cross-contamination from non-kosher items.”

The kosher status of the kitchen within prison facilities is also Yanklowitz’s main objection to the vegan meal plan.

“What is lacking in the prison situation is a kosher certification. And so what that means is that it might not actually be purely vegan,” Yanklowitz said. “It might have been produced in non-kosher pots and pans, it could be something vegan that’s pulled out of a non-vegan [container], they may not have checked for bugs, things like that.”

For prisoners who previously relied on the kosher meal plan for their religious needs, the change could potentially disrupt their spiritual practice.

Not having access to kosher food “would be an enormous challenge to their identity,” Yanklowitz said. “I’ve been advocating for Muslims who are in detention with ICE who apparently have been served pork, and that is very destabilizing for them psychologically and spiritually and can lead to additional layers of suffering, which one might consider cruel.”

Religious freedom and the right to observe religious laws, including kashrut, while incarcerated is an essential part of maintaining human dignity, Yanklowitz said.

“There are people who take the approach, ‘If they committed a crime or were found guilty, they should have no rights.’ And I don’t think that’s the Jewish approach,” Yanklowitz said. “As a Jew, I think you maintain your human dignity while you’re in there, you maintain your religious freedoms as is reasonable.” JN