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Death Row Prisoner Sues State for Kosher Food

Convicted murderer and rapist also seeks $15,000 in punitive damages

Stephanie Butnick
September 16, 2014

In the latest behind-bars battle over kashrut, a death row prisoner in Connecticut is suing the state over what he says is their failure to provide kosher food for him, which he has been requesting since May 2013. JTA reports that convicted murdered and rapist Steven Hayes filed a lawsuit arguing that the state of Connecticut is violating his First Amendment rights as an Orthodox Jew.

In his lawsuit, Hayes said that the prison’s kitchen is not certified to provide strictly kosher food. The kitchen staff told him the food served at the prison is “kosher-like.”

“Kosher-like is not kosher,” his lawsuit reportedly claims.

Hayes has requested prepackaged kosher meals be made available for all Jewish prisoners in the state, as well as $15,000 in “punitive and compensatory damages.”

If prisons willing to foot the bill for kosher meals, which are much more expensive than standard prison fare, the issue then becomes how to prove that a prisoner is in fact kosher—raising all sorts of thorny ‘who is a Jew’ questions better suited for scholars than correctional officers.

In January, Florida prisons opted for a loose interpretation of kashrut, offering kosher meals to any inmate with a “sincerely held” religious belief—regardless of what that belief might be. Immediately after the announcement, 4,417 inmates had requested kosher meals.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

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