Alarming National Spike in Religious Diets

By Expert:  Tate McCotter

Many jails in the United States are in the middle of a nationwide trend to go kosher. It has sent food costs soaring and left many sheriffs and administrators wondering what to do. They also wonder how to make an already tapped budget work with even less to accommodate those requests.

Per the Columbian newspaper in January 2013, Clark County,Washington reported that about 1% of their inmate population requested a religious diet in January 2011. Today, jail administrators estimate over 10.8% is requesting a special religious meal, most of them requesting a kosher diet. This increase in requests are budgeted to increase the cost to feed inmates from $1.8 million in 2011-2012 to $2.5 million in 2013-2014. In polls conducted by NIJO over the last two months, jails are reporting similar increases across the country.

That leaves many sheriffs and jail administrators wondering “Has my population changed religion en mass?” “Did I miss something?” The scenario puts many county jails in financially and legally difficult situations. So what are the reasons for the increase?

Gary Friedman, a former Jewish corrections chaplain based in Seattle suspects the national trend reflects misguided views on meal safety, not religion at all. “The primary motivation is, they think it’s safer,” Friedman said. “I can’t count how many times it’s happened, how many times it has come up, that you hear stories how (jails) buy food that is out of date or how inmate workers are tainting the food. So they think (kosher meals) are safer and it is of better quality.”(1) He cited an example of an inmate who requested a kosher meal and was denied. A recorded phone call between the inmate and his mother exposed the concern the inmate had that there would be spit in the regular meals.

The Legal-Based Jail Guideline J06.03.03 addresses the issue of Religious Diets, stating jail officials should make reasonable accommodation to meet inmates’ needs to conform with inmates’ religious dietary interests. Inmates are entitled by the Constitution to nutritious food and to the free exercise of religion. Courts have ruled jail officials should make “reasonable accommodations to inmates’ religious dietary requirements.” (2) It is uncertain how far the courts will go under RLUIPA; however, prior to RLUIPA, federal courts allowed substantial flexibility and balanced inmates’ religious needs against the burden it would place on jail officials. (3)

To comply with what the law requires, jail officials should adopt and implement written policies and procedures for accommodating inmates who request special religious diets. Inmates should not be permitted to dictate specific menu items. However, jail officials should develop and maintain until needed, special pork-free and vegetarian diets, which can be met in a variety of ways.

The question of an inmate’s sincerity for religious meals has led many agencies to adopt procedures to monitor the inmates, including store/commissary purchases, bartering with other inmates and observing what they eat otherwise. Such monitoring is well documented and when violations occur in the religious diet of a particular inmate’s own free will and choice, administrative hearings follow and the diet taken away.

If you or your agency has a particular need for training on religious diets, RLUIPA or other issues regarding religion, NIJO can assist by providing an intensive seminar on the subject, taught by leading experts in this area of focus. To find out more, register for an upcoming NIJO religious jail training seminar or make a request for individual agency training, please contact us.


1. The Columbian “Are Clark County Jail Meal Requests Kosher?” January 20, 2013. Erik Hidle.

2. Rendelman v. Rouse, 569 F.3d 182 (CA4 2009); Koger v. Bryan, 523 F.3d 789 (CA7 2008); Bass v. Coughlin, 974 F.2d 98 (CA2 1992); McElyea v. Babbit, 833 F.2d 196 (CA9 1987) (must provide inmates with food sufficient to sustain them in good health that satisfies religious dietary laws); Kahey v. Jones, 836 F.2d 948 (CA5 1988); Dawson v. Burnett, 631 F.Supp.2d 878 (W.D. Mich. 2009). Cf. Porter v. Caruso, 431 F.Supp.2d 768 (E.D. Mich. 2006).

3. LaFevers v. Saffle, 936 F.2d 1117 (CA10 1991) (failure to provide vegetarian diet upheld; inmate could request extra servings of vegetables if available); Johnson v. Moore, 926 F.2d 921 (CA9 1991).