With some inmates at York County Prison allegedly claiming they're Jewish so they can eat kosher food, officials are finding a debate made all the more unsavory for its religious connotations.
Prison staff plans to demand proof of religious affiliation for prisoners who are "flip-flopping" between kosher meals - which are most expensive - and standard-issue meals, depending on what's on the menu, said Don Reihart, the county's acting solicitor.
The issue came to light after Warden Mary Sabol recently attributed rising food costs to the supposed religious conversions, said County Commissioner Doug Hoke, who's also president of the county's prison board.
The average per-meal cost at the prison was around $2 last year, but rose to more than $3 for January, Hoke said.
Certified kosher meals are pre-packaged and delivered to the prison, costing about $8 per meal, nearly four times the cost of meals made in-house, Hoke said.
"It's come to her attention that a lot more prisoners are requesting the kosher diet plan," Hoke said. "We need to monitor to make sure they're not just trying to change their meal plan ... but we don't want to disenfranchise anyone of their rights."
Officials were made suspicious because prisoners who specified a different religious affiliation when they entered the prison are now saying they're Jewish, Hoke said.
Hoke said he's never tasted prison food, so he isn't sure why prisoners would want to switch to kosher, which follows religious dietary laws prohibiting, for example, pork or shellfish.
Reihart said it's probably boredom.
"It gives them a break in their routine, different food to eat," he said. "In prison, I guess you have to figure out a way to spend your day."
Flip-flops?: Reihart said the county will follow procedure to make sure prisoners' religious beliefs are protected while targeting those who appear to be "gaming the system."
Prisoners who are being served kosher meals and ask to return to non-kosher will be permitted, he said, but those who later ask to return to kosher meals will be denied.
"If there's a change the inmate doesn't like ... he can file a complaint and is brought in front of the (complaint) board," Reihart said.
Those who file complaints will be asked to provide proof, such as a statement from a rabbi, confirming a religious affiliation, he said. The process would likely include input from prison chaplains, he said, and those who "didn't demonstrate they're entitled to continue kosher" wouldn't be given kosher meals.
Possible proof: Rabbi Jeffrey Astrachan of York's Temple Beth Israel, York's largest Jewish congregation, said he agrees there should be a way to substantiate prisoners' claims of being Jewish; otherwise, people could be abusing religious protections for personal gain.
It's important for the prison to accommodate people who want to eat kosher, he said, but "there are ways for individuals to, in essence, prove their Jewish lineage."
Certification could include, for example, a statement from a rabbi who was involved in Jewish birth rituals. The requirements differ, depending on whether someone is a Jew by birth or through conversion.
He said he'd be willing to offer input if county officials called upon him to do so.
"Anybody that was born Jewish ought to be able to substantiate the faith of their parents, and converts should be able to provide the names of the rabbi or rabbis who oversaw that process," he said.
Rare practice: Reihart said there are about 140 prisoners in York County Prison who order kosher meals because they say they're Jewish.
Astrachan said that number is "not representative of an accurate proportion within the Jewish community of York itself."
He doesn't eat kosher and neither do most of his congregants, he said.
Of the estimated 500 or 600 people in his congregation, only about 1 percent - five or six people - eat a kosher diet, he said.
Reihart said it's difficult to determine what a statistically sound number of kosher-eating inmates should be at the prison, which has a daily population of about 2,400 people; the prison houses federal immigration detainees, some of whom come from countries where there are many more kosher Jews than in York.
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