Prison Blues

“Come back to a place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope.”

Zechariah 9:12


It was hard to miss this week’s New York Times article on kosher food served in prisons, “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love a Kosher Prison Meal.” Taxpayers, we have a problem. In Florida, the cost of 3 kosher meals daily in prison is $7, a hike up from the standard $1.54. Can you blame non-Jews for choosing kosher? If it costs more, it must be better. Some inmates believe that if it is kosher, the food is a higher standard, tastes better or is especially blessed. This last feature is critical when your blessings run thin. Gang members sometimes choose kosher so they can sit separately in the dining room and conduct their business. The article reported that New York State had 1,500 inmates who keep kosher out of 56,000, but the kosher meals there are two dollars cheaper.


It’s hard not feel cynical and wonder how kosher-eating inmates engaged in morally unkosher behavior. It’s no comfort to know that there is actually a website called “Jews in Prison.” It’s landing page offered this reassurance: “Your complete resource center.” The website makes an emphatic point of saying that one can keep kosher in prison, especially if the judge knows that the convict is a religious Jew before sentencing, but reminds us that it isn’t easy. “True, it isn’t Brooklyn, but it can be done.”


The website also warns against hypocrisy:


It is important that an inmate be consistent with what he or she demands, especially with regard to religious practices. It has happened more than once that a Jewish inmate has "demanded" kosher food. Then, that very same day, that inmate is seen eating on the main line - non-kosher food. In order to establish credibility, being truthful is of utmost importance. Being consistent will also earn you the respect of the other inmates and staff.


Being truthful is of the utmost importance, and if you didn’t realize that before your sentence, perhaps it became more obvious in your cell. We recognize that people make mistakes, sometimes grievous ones that deserve incarceration, but that does not mean that we can or should diminish their capacity for repentance or remove the anchors of stability that will bring them back. We take the words of Zechariah seriously: “Come back to a place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope.” Sometimes prison is actually the only safe place for a person to confront his or her past and create a new, more hopeful future. For this reason, we believe that proper treatment and conditions of prisoners is our ethical obligation.


The Supreme Court of Israel has this to say about the Jewish values underlying prison conditions:

"The right to physical integrity and human dignity is one to which prisoners and detainees are also entitled. The prison walls do not separate between a detainee and his human dignity… See how concerned the Sages were for a person's dignity and his rights, even if he had sinned. Maimonides, after discussing the various penal sentences available to the court, including imprisonment (Maimonides, Laws of Courts, 24:9), makes the following concluding statement: 'All of these [punishments] are to be used at the discretion of the judge, in accordance with their appropriateness and their time. And in all these actions his intent must be for the sake of Heaven, and human dignity may not be a trivial matter in his eyes… for he must be cautious not to slight their honor'…


One of the reasons that non-Jewish prisoners choose kosher meals, according to the article, is that they have so few opportunities to exercise choice, they take the ones that come to them – like picking dinner. This insight into the difficult mental challenge of incarceration helps us better understand the blessing that a prisoner recites upon achieving freedom: “Blessed are You, King of the Universe, who bestows kindness upon the vulnerable, for He has bestowed goodness to me.” The prisoner thanks God for the gift of choice and personal autonomy that has been returned to him upon his release.

Freedom of choice – even the sliver of freedom to decide what you eat – is a fundamental condition of human dignity, and it is our obligation to preserve it, especially for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

Shabbat Shalom