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February 28, 2013
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Law protecting special diets for devout, deceivers costs Nevada’s prison system

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Language slipped into a federal law designed to protect religious land rights is costing states including Nevada thousands of dollars a year.Language in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act essentially guarantees prison inmates access to special diets if they claim to be a part of a religion that requires certain foods or restrictions.“Religious diets are our most litigated (issue), and courts have repeatedly told us we have to provide them,” said Greg Cox, director of Nevada’s Department of Corrections.He told a money committee studying the prison system budget that Nevada is under a federal court order directing that inmates who say they’re Jewish have a kosher diet. The prison system budgets about $3 a day for each prisoner to feed the general population; the kosher diet costs about $15 a day for each prisoner.“Initially, we had 30-40 inmates who received this meal historically,” Cox said.Now, after the federal court mandate, he said there are more than 300.“All of the sudden, the other inmates saw this kosher meal and thought it looked good,” Cox said. Kosher food is defined by Jewish dietary law and regulates which animals can be eaten, the way in which they can have been slaughtered and the separation of milk and meat, among other things. All an inmate has to do to qualify is tell a judge he’s sincere about changing his religion to Jewish, Cox said.He said the problem isn’t just with the kosher menu, that some inmates have repeatedly changed their religion to get different foods or some other advantage.“We’ve had it where an inmate has been Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Jewish again,” he said.Other religions also have dietary restrictions, Cox said.The issue has cropped up in prisons nationwide, he said. Nevada officials are in federal district court trying to convince a judge they can provide a “common-fare” menu that has been certified as kosher by a rabbi acting as consultant to the system who is an expert on the dietary requirements.“The common-fare menu gives us the ability to drop our costs almost in half,” Cox said.That menu would cost the state about $8 a day per inmate instead of $15; district court hasn’t yet ruled on it, Cox said. Until then, despite having to build a prison food-services budget, he said he has no choice but to provide the much more expensive menu.A number of other states are watching what happens with Nevada’s lawsuit, Cox said.The study committee chairman, Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, pointed to “massive increases” in the cost of inmate food, especially at Ely State Prison.Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, who is in the food-services business, said she doesn’t believe Kosher menus are that much more expensive than regular menus. But, she added, “it’s a little easier for me to swallow knowing we don’t have an option.”

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The Nevada Appeal Updated Feb 28, 2013 03:48AM Published Feb 28, 2013 03:46AM Copyright 2013 The Nevada Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.