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Special food needs

The preceding examples of food issues are situations to which anyone would likely object. Beyond that, there are also a wide variety of issues which arise from the opinions of each individual prisoner. For example, Samuel Jenkins of the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia requested a vegan diet, and even specified a particular meal plan for the Passover holiday.187 (The defendant prison received summary judgment.188) Sherral Kahey, a prisoner in Louisiana’s Correctional Institute for Women, requested not only that her meals be free of pork products, but that they be prepared without any cookware, flatware or utensils that have ever been in contact with pork or its byproducts.189 (This prison also received summary judgment, but at least Kahey’s case reached the appellate level.190) Frank Afrika, a Pennsylvania inmate, demanded a diet consisting exclusively of uncooked fruits and vegetables.191 (Another win for the defendants, but this case was close enough to require a full trial and an appeal.192) Guy McEachin of New York's Southport Correctional Facility just wanted to pray over his meal in order to make it Halal, without interruption from the prison guards.193 (The appellate court affirmed dismissal of the due process and cruel and unusual punishment claims, but remanded for further proceedings on the First Amendment claim.194)

Prisoners have also been known to request meals that are vegetarian195 or various forms of Kosher.196 Some demand expensive Halal meat,197 and some only ask for permission to eat after sunset during Ramadan.198 Prisons’ compliance with dietary requests varies.199

Many of these requests are based in religious beliefs.200 In fact, some prisoners have found it easier to achieve their dietary goals by adopting a religion that demands it.201 Frank Afrika’s case in particular hinged on whether his beliefs even qualified as a religion protected under the First Amendment.202 (The court felt that his beliefs were too narrow.203) Sometimes prison guards encourage the inmates to join and practice a religion, and sometimes they actively obstruct and discourage it.204

Prisons have valid reasons for denying special food requests. One inmate who receives meals that differ from the hundreds or thousands of other meals served in the same building may be viewed by other inmates as enjoying special treatment, sparking an explosion for other requests for special food.205 If special meals must be procured from outside the prison, contraband items could be smuggled in and directed to specific inmates by packing them inside the meals.206 Outside vendors unfamiliar with the prison’s needs may inadvertently provide packaging that could be used as a weapon.207 Special meals can also raise cost considerations, for either the meal itself or the complexities of administering multiple types of food.208

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