St. Louis — Missouri prison inmate Norman Lee Toler was once labeled as a white supremacist, after, authorities say, he was caught in an Illinois penitentiary with seven photos of Adolf Hitler and a fresh “SS” tattoo.
This week, however, Toler was in federal court in St. Louis, saying he is Jewish and that his soul will be in jeopardy if he is forced to eat nonkosher food.
Lawyers and prison officials say the case is a first for Missouri.
“It’s probably going to be a historic ruling,” Missouri Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth said.
And although the number of Jewish prisoners in Missouri may be small — only 60 or 70 of the almost 30,000 Missouri inmates have told prison officials that they’re Jewish — the issue could have wide-ranging effects.
A prison official testified Thursday that if the state is ordered to provide kosher meals, officials may change the policy of accepting a prisoner’s religion without verification.
And in court filings and testimony, they seemed wary of prisoners converting for the purpose of a special meal.
Toler’s food saga began two years ago, with his filing of a federal lawsuit that said prison officials repeatedly denied his requests for kosher food, violating both federal law and his constitutional right of religious expression.
As a result, Toler wrote, he was suffering “extreme malnutrition, weight loss, migraines, extreme anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness, dehumanization, persecution and the terror of eternal doom from the guilt of violating the fundamental tenets of his religion.”
Hauswirth said that prison officials design the menu to address as many medical and religious needs as possible and provide at least one meat-free option for every meal.
In Illinois, where kosher, nonpork and vegetarian and vegan meals are available, prisoners request religious meals through the institution’s chaplain, Department of Corrections spokesman Derek Schnapp said.
Inmates in federal prisons follow a similar procedure.
Missouri prison officials and staff, represented by the state attorney general’s office, have challenged the sincerity of Toler’s religious beliefs. They’ve also argued that their policies are constitutional under a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision that sprang from a different dispute over Missouri prison rules.
In that case, which overturned a ban on prisoners marrying but upheld a ban on letters between prisoners, the court said judges must balance a prisoner’s constitutional rights against compelling government interests, such as safety and cost.
Missouri’s lawyers say that providing Toler or others with special food might slow meal lines and encourage pushing and shoving.
They also say that they have granted Toler alternative ways of worshipping, including twice-weekly chapel time, kosher food in the prison canteen and the availability of ritual items on holy days.
“Inmates need not be afforded their preferred means of practicing their religion,” lawyers wrote. They say Toler’s special meals could cost two or more times the $2 or so it costs to feed an inmate for a day.
Patricia Cornell, assistant corrections director for adult institutions, testified Thursday that she rejected the idea of providing kosher and vegan meals several years ago, because of the higher cost.
Cornell said that if Toler wins, she would “almost assuredly” re-examine the process by which inmates self-select their religion by checking a box.
Toler may not be the best standard-bearer for religious rights. In 1999, he was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for robbery in Illinois, and released on parole in 2003.
He is currently serving a 10-year sentence for statutory rape in Pettis County. The victim was under age 14, court documents state.
While in prison in Illinois, guards caught him with pictures of Hitler and white supremacist literature, which is against the rules, according to disciplinary reports.
He also got a jailhouse tattoo that reads “SS” and has other white supremacist tattoos, according to the reports, which Missouri Department of Corrections lawyers filed in the food case. The SS was a Nazi police organization in Hitler’s Germany.
“We have serious factual doubts about both his request and his sincerity,” said John Fougere, spokesman for the Missouri attorney general.
Toler didn’t notify anyone of his need for kosher food until 10 months after his arrival in the state prison, Fougere said.
Toler’s court-appointed lawyers, Nathan Plumb and Heidi Durr, said his past behavior has no bearing on the sincerity of his current beliefs.
Durr said that Toler testified in court this week that he had been holding the white supremacist materials for another inmate. He said the “white supremacist” tattoos are actually just an eagle.
Plumb said Toler initially hesitated to demand kosher meals because he didn’t know he could.
Durr said Toler is only asking for separate, pre-packaged kosher meals, and that prison officials haven’t even figured out how much that would cost.
U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton gave lawyers until Feb. 11 to file briefs, and may rule by the end of February, Durr said.
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