Inmate seeks kosher meals in prison

BY MIKE SHERWIN, ASSISTANT EDITOR

A Missouri prison inmate seeking kosher food while he is incarcerated had his case heard in a federal court last week.

The inmate, Norman Lee Toler, filed the suit in December 2005 after prison officials denied his requests for kosher food, saying it would be cost-prohibitive and a burden on staff to do so.

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Dressed in a Department of Corrections-issued orange jumpsuit, with long hair, a full beard, and wearing a black kippah, Toler appeared in court for a non-jury trial at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3.

Toler was sentenced in Dec. 2004 to 10 years in prison for first degree statutory rape with a person less than 14 years old, according to court documents. He has been an inmate at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Mo.

In court documents, Toler wrote that Missouri Department of Corrections personnel have imposed “a substantial burden” on his ability to exercise his religious beliefs by not providing kosher food, in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment.

“The availability of nutritionally-sufficient kosher food for a Jew is not a luxury accommodation; it is an essential provision to allow that person to live,” he wrote in a court document.

Toler writes that since he “must choose between eating non-kosher food and death, every bite he takes is done at the peril of his very soul.”

Lawyers for the Attorney General’s office argued that under the standards set forth in RLUIPA, and backed by a 1987 Supreme Court judgment in Turner v. Safley and other cases, the government has to balance any burden on inmates’ religious exercise with the government’s “compelling interest” in maintaining a secure and cost-effective facility.

The attorneys wrote in court documents that there is “no substantial burden on Toler’s ability to practice his religion. MDOC does not serve its inmates kosher meals, but does serve a vegetarian option for breakfast, dinner, and supper meals.” In addition, they wrote, Toler is able to purchase kosher food items from the prison canteen. They wrote that even if the court finds that Toler’s religious freedom was burdened, that providing kosher meals would be cost prohibitive.

If the state purchased pre-packaged kosher meals for Toler, the cost, for only two of the three meals typically served, would be “more than three times the current average cost,” according to court documents.

The staff at the Northeast Correctional Center makes three meals a day for close to 2,000 people, including inmates and staff, testified Tim Leopold, food service manager at the prison, and one of the NECC personnel listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

“The time it would take for kitchen staff to order, purchase, handle, prepare, and store kosher food for one inmate, Toler, would be disruptive and chaotic for kitchen staff, who are already overworked. MDOC has a compelling interest in streamlining food production and maintaining an orderly work environment,” attorneys stated in court documents.

Leopold also testified that serving a different meal to a single inmate could raise security concerns — that disruptions to the food line could potentially create discord among prisoners.

However, Toler said that being denied access to kosher food is burdensome, and that the state could accommodate his religious diet at minimal cost.

“The Jewish dietary laws are an important, integral part of the covenant between the Jewish people, including Plaintiff, and the God of Israel,” Toler wrote in a court document.

Toler said he “suffers from extreme malnutrition, weight loss, migranes, 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.”

Lawyers for the Attorney General’s office questioned the sincerity of Toler’s Judaism.

They introduced evidence of Toler’s Christian upbringing, and evidence that while he was incarcerated in Illinois, he was affiliated with a white supremacist prison gang. They pointed to Illinois prison records that Toler was found with “white supremist contraband” including images of Adolf Hitler, and that he has a tattoo with a crucifix and the letters “S.S.”

Nathan Plumb, one of Toler’s court-appointed lawyers, said Toler was raised in a Christian family, but converted to Judaism.

Plumb said Toler testified that he was “loosely affiliated” with the white supremacist gang as a means of protection against gangs of black and Hispanic prisoners. Plumb said Toler testified that since he has been in a Missouri prison, he has not been affiliated with any white supremacist groups.

Plumb said Toler testified that the “crucifix tattoo” is, in fact, an eagle, and was misconstrued.

Plumb said previous court cases, in the Eighth Circuit and elsewhere have upheld that prisoners’ previous religious beliefs are not at issue. Rather, Plumb said, it is inmates’ current beliefs and practices that are relevant.

At the conclusion of the hearing on Jan. 3, US. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton asked the lawyers to submit legal briefs by Feb. 11, before she makes a ruling on the case.

Posted Jan. 9, 2008