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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 6.11:
I work in a prison, and I have an inmate that is demanding Kosher Food? How do I know if his claim is justified?

Answer:

Inmates who were Jewish before coming to prison can usually give references from relatives, and if they were affiliated, from rabbis. One could also inquire as to whether they kept kosher before going to jail and how observant they were. Additionally, their observance level should be apparent by other practices in prison (i.e., do they attempt to observe the Shabbat?). In the UK, the official line (set by the prisons) is that if the inmate ate Kosher food outside prison, he/she has a right to it inside prison. There is at least one progressive rabbi in the UK whose rule is: If a Jewish inmate requests Kosher food, he will approve it.

There are, of course, prisoners who convert to traditional Judaism. Most non-Jews who chose to convert need a Rabbi for guidance and, of course, the conversion procedures (circumcision or drawing of blood if already circumcised and immersion). Those who are Jewish and want to become more observant, can take the steps slowly and under the guidance of a rabbi, as well. If they are truly sincerely, they can begin with a vegetarian diet, and demonstrate their sincerity thourhg other Jewish practices. For example, do they keep the Sabbath, do they pray (three times) daily, do they have and put on Tephillin, do they engage in serious Jewish study, have they set about to make "Tshuvah" repentance for those they harmed that might have caused them to be incarcerated. Do they even know what Tephillin is?

However, the issue is complicated. There is a halachic ruling about a person who claims to be Jewish. If he makes the claim outside of Israel, you accept him at his word since there is no advantage to be Jewish in the Diaspora. If he says he is Jewish in the land, you must question him if you are suspicious since there are advantages to be a Jew in Israel. The same should hold for a Jew in prison. Is there an advantage to be an observant Jew in prison? Would he get special privileges? If so, question him.

If the party in question is a convert, ask him for the rabbinic court that presided at his conversion. What did he have to do for conversion? If it is a legitimate rabbinic court, there would be records. Ask what synagogue he was a member of before prison. You can contact that synagogue and they should know him. Ask him who was his rabbi? Ask if his family can verify his Jewishness and level of observance. Ask him if his mother was Jewish? Jewish diet is important but not the most important part of being a Jew.

There are also a number of rulings that affect Jewish practice in Prison. In Ross v. Coughlin 669 F. Supp 1235 (S.D.N.Y. 1987), the key points were (1) that a prisoner can wear a beard but should shave for an ID photo; (2) yarmulke, tallith & tallith katan are allowed; and (3) Kosher food is allowed. Young v. Lane 922 F. 2d 370 (7th Cir. 1991) also ruled that a prisoner may wear yarmulka Ward v. Walsh 1 F. 3rd 873 (9th Cir. 1992) was a case where Kosher food was requested, but the request was remanded to District Court for more facts. Candles were not allowed because of security. Transferring the prisoner on Shabbat was permitted, because forcing prison not to transfer would be too much of a burden. There was also no obligation to get a rabbi. In Best v. Kelly 879 F. Supp 305 (W.D.N.Y. 1995), the prison chaplain said the plaintiff was not Jewish, and the court held he could not wear a yarmulke. In Thomas v. Lord 174 Misc.2d 461, 664 N.Y.S.2d 973 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1997), No. 1963-96. Dated: July 8, 1997, a prisoner's request that court declare her a member of the Jewish faith and that prison authorities accept her as such was denied; however, the non-Jewish prisoner had a right to participate in all Jewish religious observances to the extent allowed by the teachings of the religion and subject to any legitimate or penologic restrictions that may be appropriate. In People ex rel. Sarkis 175 Misc.2d 433, 668 N.Y.S.2d 435 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1997)a petition by an Orthodox Jew acquitted of second degree murder on ground of insanity and committed to psychiatric hospital to be furloughed during Jewish holidays was denied, as were his proposed alternatives to the accommodations being made by the hospital. In Umar v. Scott , 991 S.W.2d 512 (Tex. App. 1999), the prison policy of not allowing inmates to grow beards, except for legitimate medical reasons, along with the policy of not allowing closed custody inmates to attend congregational religious services or religious classes together was ruled as not violating Muslim prisoner's free exercise rights and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Government Code, or the Texas Constitution.


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to questions@scjfaq.org. The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at maintainer@scjfaq.org.

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