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Justice department sues Florida over lack of kosher meals for prison inmates

TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. government has filed a lawsuit against Florida's prison system, saying it violates the rights of Jewish inmates by refusing to provide kosher meals.

"The Florida Department of Corrections forces hundreds of its prisoners to violate their core religious beliefs on a daily basis," the suit claims.

The Department of Justice filed suit in U.S. District Court in Miami, claiming the Department of Corrections systematically violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. Most other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons routinely provide kosher food, the lawsuit states.

Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker said kosher meals were limited because the agency is struggling to control its food costs.

"We have just become aware of the lawsuit, we are evaluating it and what course of action we should take," Tucker said. "In no way do we intentionally want to do anything that precludes someone from being able to follow their prescribed religious beliefs."

The federal government says the state offers inmates many other specialty diets, from vegetarian to liquid to pureed, and that it maintains a pilot kosher meals program for about a dozen inmates at the South Florida Reception Center in Miami. The pilot program is available only to inmates 59 or older who are eligible for prison work squads.

The suit says the prison system disregarded the advice of its own study group to continue the program, and today refuses to provide kosher food to other inmates who had been enrolled in the program before it was disbanded five years ago.

About 250 inmates were enrolled in the earlier program on an average day, the lawsuit says.

Thirteen inmates are identified as plaintiffs, but are not named. Three are housed at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami, two are at Dade C.I. in Florida City, and three are at South Bay, a Palm Beach County prison run by a private company, The Geo Group.

The federal action is the third major lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections in the past year. The agency lost two lawsuits filed by labor unions seeking to prevent the privatization of all South Florida prisons, and of all inmate health care.

Tucker, the defendant in all three lawsuits, must retire by next March. He's seeking a new position overseeing a regional, 10-county anti-drug program in the Jacksonville area, paid for with federal funds.

A career law enforcement officer, Tucker has applied to be director of the North Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Justice department sues Florida over lack of kosher meals for prison inmates 08/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 16, 2012 11:31pm]
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