Jewish inmate sues over meals, religious rights

RICHMOND, Va. — A Jewish inmate alleged in a lawsuit filed Monday that the state discriminates against female prisoners by limiting special religious diets to its maximum security prison for women, while providing such meals in all men’s prisons.

Mitzi Ann Hamilton, serving 5-1/2 years for fraud and forgery at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, also claims the Department of Corrections has refused to provide her with certified kosher meals as part of its “common fare” diet designed to accommodate inmates’ religious beliefs.

The department offers the common fare diet of tomatoes, beans, sardines and iceberg lettuce to female inmates only at the maximum-security Fluvanna prison, the lawsuit alleges.

The common fare meals do not meet requirements of a kosher diet in either the substance of the meal or in preparation, Hamilton claims in the federal court lawsuit. Kosher meals are based on stringent dietary restrictions set forth in the Bible.

The state does not provide kosher meals to any inmates but does provide common fare meals to male inmates at low, medium and maximum-security prisons, according to the lawsuit.

Hamilton says she asked about receiving a religious meal immediately upon entering state custody in May 2003 after convictions in Henrico and Westmoreland counties.

Even though she had the lowest security classification, the department assigned Hamilton to the maximum-security Fluvanna prison based on her meal request, instead of to a lower security prison, the lawsuit says.

As a result, Hamilton “has been housed with violent, aggressive inmates, and she does not have access to the … rehabilitative services offered at minimum-security prisons,” the lawsuit claims.

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said he could not comment on a pending lawsuit. He referred questions to the attorney general’s office, where spokesman Timothy Murtaugh said the lawsuit was under review.

Hamilton said she was not demanding too much from the prison system. “One thing you bring into prison with you is your belief in God,” she said in a phone interview. “The torah stipulates that I observe kosher,” which she did before entering prison, she said.

Hamilton, 36, also claims in her lawsuit that the state interferes with her attempts to practice Judaism.

She said that during Passover this month she requested a ceremonial Seder Plate consisting of horseradish, a sprig of parsley, a vegetable, a small amount of chopped apples and nuts, and a hard-boiled egg.

“Much like the Christian Eucharist feast, the meal is symbolic … and not intended to replace a substantive meal,” according to the lawsuit.

But when Hamilton began her Passover meal, FCCW officials refused to give her both the Seder Plate and the common fare meal, telling her she had to choose, the suit claims. “By way of contrast, defendants do not require Christians to choose between the Eucharist and a regular meal,” Hamilton argues.

The lawsuit also alleges that the prison does not permit her to have regular access to a rabbi and Jewish religious materials, or allow her to conduct traditional Jewish ceremonies. Christian inmates, however, have a chaplain and religious services, a library with Christian materials, and they celebrate Christian holidays.

The lawsuit claims the state is violating Hamilton’s religious rights guaranteed under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

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Associated Press, USA
Apr. 19, 2004
Bill Baskervill

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 19, 2004.
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