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Inmate Lawsuit Over Kosher Food to Get Appeals Court Hearing

Jewish prison inmate Max Moussazadeh is demanding that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice serve him kosher food. On Monday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear his case.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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There are 884 Jewish inmates in the Texas prison system, and 29 of them self-identify as "Orthodox," according to state officials. One Jewish inmate, Max Moussazadeh, is demanding that the prison where he is housed in solitary confinement provide him with kosher food.

On Monday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans will hear oral arguments in the case of Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The court will decide whether the Jewish inmate has a right to be provided a kosher diet. His lawyers say the change would cost TDCJ between $1,000 and $3,000 per year, or an extra 0.02 percent of the agency's annual budget.

In conjunction with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, Moussazadeh's lawyers argue that offering kosher meals should be required under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed by Congress in 2000. It “prohibits a state or local government from substantially burdening the religious exercise of such an institutionalized person.”

Moussazadeh, 35, is serving a 75-year sentence for a 1993 murder in Harris County. He was 16 at the time of the crime and served as a lookout while three co-defendants shot a man during a robbery in Houston. "He cares deeply about maintaining his kosher diet,” said Luke Goodrich, his lawyer. “He was born and raised in a kosher household, and often when people get in trouble with the law, they return to their religious roots."

Following a kosher Jewish diet generally means abstaining from pork and certain seafood and not mixing meat and dairy products in a single meal. Chicken, beef and other animals must be slaughtered by a butcher trained in Jewish dietary law. A kosher kitchen must also use separate utensils for meat and dairy products. 

Pork is commonly served in the Texas prison system, "in all its infinite varieties,” wrote former inmate Jorge Antonio Renaud in his published guide to life in Texas prisons: “chops, ham cutlets, fatty ribs (once or twice a year), pressed ham, and the ever present ‘links’ (steamed, baked, or barbecued).” The Michael Packing Plant in Tennessee Colony is run by the department and produces and ships to Texas prisons more than 9 million pounds of pork products every year, according to TDCJ.

When Moussazadeh filed his lawsuit in 2005, Goodrich said, TDCJ “mostly capitulated” and set up a kosher kitchen at the Stringfellow Unit, in Rosharon.

Now, at Stringfellow, said TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark, a Jewish rabbi conducts services and there is a kosher kitchen at the prison. "Offenders have the ability to purchase kosher entrees and other kosher products through the unit commissary," Clark said.

But Moussazadeh was caught with a "prohibited substance" on three occasions, Clark said, though he could not say what the substance was. Moussazadeh was moved to the Stiles Unit, where he is housed in "administrative segregation," Texas’ most restrictive security classification. The Stiles Unit does not provide kosher meals.

Goodrich said every prison unit should offer kosher meals, in the same way they would offer meals for prisoners with specific medical needs. "Wherever they're transferred, they're given a medical diet,” he said. "It's really just bureaucratic stubbornness.” 

TDCJ argued that Moussazadeh's demands should not be heard by the courts because he has not "exhausted his administrative remedies," arguing that he did not complain at the Stiles Unit before filing the claim, and could have bought pre-packaged kosher meals at the unit's commissary. Moussazadeh, in his reply, said that would have been expensive.

The lower court dismissed Moussazadeh's claim because it found him to be "insincere." In response, the American Jewish Committee submitted an amicus brief, arguing that "under Jewish law, it is understood that even believers striving to mend their ways will backslide and fail to observe commandments like the dietary rules on occasion."

The Becket Fund is pursuing a similar case in Florida, and earlier this year the Indiana Department of Corrections was forced by a court to provide kosher food for Jewish inmates.

TDCJ declined to comment on the pending litigation but said it is the agency's policy is "to extend to all offenders as much freedom and opportunity as possible for pursuing individual beliefs and practices, consistent with security, safety
and orderly operations of the institution."

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