Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of the Jewish social justice organization Uri L'tzedek, is joining in solidarity with protesters around the country in a hunger strike. The cause today is to force prisons to stop putting prisoners in solitary confinement.
Coincidentally, as I was reading his blog post, I got a call from my friend Joe Baldassano, an administrator at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
I met Joe a number of years ago. At Tecumseh state prison, an hour south of Omaha, there was a muslim prisoner who insisted that for religious reasons he could not eat the food at the prison.
Joe did some research and learned that the highest standard of religious diet that accommodates the most religions is Orthodox Jewish kosher. They asked the inmate if an Orthodox Rabbi would be acceptable supervision for him. He responded with an emphatic YES!
Enter the Chief Rabbi of the State of Nebraska!
Joe invited me out to the prison and together with his staff we created a vegetarian kosher meal plan that uses a rice cooker and utensils clearly labeled and set aside for kosher use.
Hot meals consist of a special rice and bean based product that is certified by OU kosher. It comes in 4 or 5 flavors which are rotated to provide the inmate with variety. For cold meals the inmates have a choice of a number of products all certified OU. Joe and his staff were amazed at how many of the products that they were already serving were OU products.
We developed the kosher protocol to be as easy as possible to limit the possibility of errors. I returned to Tecumseh when the protocol was complete to do a staff orientation. The same protocol was instituted in prisons throughout Nebraska. We even developed a pesach protocol as well.
The protocol includes a letter that can be provided to the inmates upon request with my credentials as well as sources from the Shulchan Aruch and others for every rule in the protocol. (I used many leniency, for instance I ruled that the prison can serve kitniot on pesach.) Inmates are also encouraged to write to me if they have any questions.
Although there has never been an inmate in Tecumseh who identified himself as Jewish, over the years I have received several letters from inmates. Two letters were sincere questions regarding the protocol which I responded to immediately, but I mostly receive letters of gratitude for helping make kosher food accessible in prison.
Since my initial contact with Joe, Beth Israel has also donated to the prisons a number of old Bibles with the Hirtz commentary, yarmulkes, and talises.
The protocol was a big job for me and my staff with long trips to Tecumseh and many revised drafts to make sure that we covered all of our bases. But I did it specifically because I was so inspired by how Joe and his staff cared for the well being of their inmates.
Today Joe was calling because he had a question. Prison regulations currently call for punishment of inmates who throw their food. In such circumstances inmates are taken off of the regular meal plan and given something called a nutri-loaf for every meal for a number of days depending on the degree of the infraction. Joe wants to know if we can make the nutri-loaf kosher.
Given the current press about our country's prisons I feel an obligation to write a bit about my experience working with the prisons in Nebraska.
The Nebraska prisons will recognize any religion that comes forward. Currently they recognize 20 religions from Asatru to Zoroastrianism and everything in between. While 20 might not sound like a lot, understand that Christianity with all of its many denominations is just counted as one religion.
Joe and his staff go far beyond the call of duty to help inmates meet their religious obligations while in prison.
To give an example aside from kosher food, the prison staff allows for prayer services and tries to provide all necessary requirements for those services.
Different religions require different religious articles. For instance, Jews require tefilin and a Torah scroll.
The religion of Asatru requires a ceremonial dagger to pray. Wicca requires an atheme knife, Theodism needs a sword, and Satanism requires the Sword of Power (couldn't find a link for that one).
Obviously, the inmates cannot be given weapons, even to pray. It would have been completely reasonable for Joe to simply say, "we cannot accommodate you." But that is not the way that Joe works. Just like Joe found an Orhtodox Rabbi to certify kosher food, he searched the country for experts in these religions - and made sure that the experts were acceptable to the inmates! In Jewish terms, he allowed the inmates to choose their own Rabbi!
Most of these religions do not exist in Nebraska so Joe had to search the country. For some religions he was able to find clergy, for some, particularly the North African religions based on the sun god Ra, the best he could find were college professors. In the case of Shetaut Neter, he discovered there was a radio show based in Chicago dedicated to practitioners of that religion.
Joe went to the experts. He asked what would be acceptable replacements for weapons in the services. Some of the poskim ruled that bidieved it is kosher to use cardboard swords. One ruled that the inmates should use a feather in their service. (Now I don't feel so bad about the kitniot thing!)
Joe's training is in criminal justice and public administration. He never imagined that his job would require learning about all these different religions. Despite his extensive research, he never presumes to be an expert in any religion. He always works closely with the inmates to find an acceptable authority and figure out how to best accommodate their needs given the circumstances..
I asked Joe what his views were on the hunger strikes and the protests.
He was happy I asked and told me that while there may be a few prisons in the country that use solitary confinement, in Nebraska they do not.
They do have what they call segregation, where inmates are moved to a cell block where they are held separately. I personally visited this block while we were developing the kosher protocol. The inmates are able to see one another and they interact with staff several times a day. They have their meals, even kosher meals if they choose, delivered to their cell rather than eat in the cafeteria. The prison offers incentive programs for the prisoners to expedite their release back into the normal system.
The Federal government recently did a study on the country's prison systems and Nebraska came out among the top in the country. We are ACA acredited which means we have to follow nationally regulated guidelines, and recently we won the coveted Eagle Award! Nebraskans should be proud that our prisons are among the most humane and productive in the country.
Prison is hell. Even under the best circumstances, when your freedom is taken away so is your dignity. But prison is necessary. Joe and his staff take their jobs very seriously and make sure that prisoners are not punished any more than they have to be. I commend them all for the extra care and sensitivity that they bring to their jobs every day, and the inmates that I have heard from surely recognize and appreciate it.
If there are inhumane prisons in this country then I hope that the hunger strikes are able to correct that. But according to Joe, the Nebraska prisons are not experiencing widespread protests from the prisoners. The only fasting that his inmates do is on Yom Kippur.