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Mich. prisoners to get certified kosher meals under settlement

The settlement requires the department to provide kosher meals to inmates who have requested them previously


Paul Eagan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING, Mich. – As many as 200 Michigan prisoners would start receiving meals that are certified kosher under a proposed settlement reached over the weekend to a class-action lawsuit backed by the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The Michigan Department of Corrections in 2013 introduced a vegan meal that was supposed to serve as a religious meal for prisoners from all non-Christian religions.

That provoked a lawsuit from Gerald Ackerman and other Jewish prisoners, who said a vegan diet and a kosher diet are not the same.

A vegan diet lacks kosher meat and dairy products and the department uses non-kosher items in preparing the meals and non-kosher equipment, utensils, and areas to prepare and serve them, the prisoners alleged.

Under the proposed settlement, which will be subject to a fairness hearing before U.S. District Judge Linda Parker in Detroit, the meals would have to either be prepared in prison kitchens that are certified kosher or purchased from an outside kosher vendor.

“A vegan diet ... is based on Buddhist beliefs and practices,” former prisoner Michael Arnold said in the original lawsuit, filed in 2013. “The plaintiffs do not hold such beliefs.”

Arnold, who was dropped from the lawsuit when he was released from prison, said “the policy of enforced vegetarianism is targeted specifically at prisoners ... who are Jewish.”

The proposed settlement, agreed to by the department, requires the department to provide a certified kosher lunch and dinner each day to the class members. The meals must either be prepared at a certified kosher kitchen — which the attorney for the prisoners says the department does not now have — or be purchased from a certified kosher vendor.

Not covered by the settlement is a demand that the prisoners receive kosher meat and dairy products on the Sabbath and certain Jewish holidays. That demand was the subject of a recent bench trial before Parker. A ruling is pending.

Daniel Manville, director of the civil rights clinic at MSU’s College of Law, said many of the prisoners he represents have suffered since 2013 by being forced to eat meals that are non-kosher.

“It was stupid to do it that way without also certifying the kitchen as kosher,” Manville said of the department using one vegan meal for all non-Christian prisoners of religious faith. “For six years, they have violated all these people’s right and have not cared about it.”

The suit was also backed by the ACLU of Michigan.

Though the settlement does not include monetary damages, the case will cost the department about $100,000 in plaintiff attorney fees, he said.

The department earlier attempted to have the case thrown out, citing costs and other reasons.

“The MDOC has substantial measures in place to protect against cross-contamination of food,” the Attorney General’s Office argued on behalf of the department in 2015.

“The increased costs associated with enacting additional measures to stop cross-contamination would do substantial harm to others, particularly the overburdened taxpayers of the state of Michigan,” said assistant Attorney General John Thurber.

Also, while some Jewish prisoners “may want a greater variety of food and and to consume dairy products and kosher meat, the MDOC is not obligated to provide ... them,” he said.

Prisoners covered by the settlement are listed as Jewish in prison records and requested religious meals.

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