Court Needles New York on Prison Meal Options

MANHATTAN (CN) – The Second Circuit revived a challenge Tuesday by a New York inmate who says prison officials seem unable to accommodate both his dairy allergy and his religious diet as a Nazarite Jew.

When he first brought the underlying challenge in Albany, David “DeAndre” Williams said that the kosher meal plan at the Upstate Correctional Facility was not suitable for Nazarites, a sect of Judaism that Williams has been following since the 1990s. Williams, 56, has since been transferred to the maximum-security prison Green Haven. He was convicted of assault and due for parole in 2022, according to state prison records.

In addition to the usual kosher diet, Williams as a Nazarite abstains from all meat and “fruit of the vine,” which he interprets to include grapes and vinegar.

Williams appealed to the Second Circuit after a federal judge sided with the state at summary judgment, finding that the Department of Corrections was justified in refusing to craft a special menu for Williams since it has an interest in keeping costs and administrative burdens to a minimum.

Reversing Tuesday, the Manhattan-based federal appeals court said that conclusion conflicts with recent Supreme Court precedent.

In the 2015 case cited, Holt v. Hobbs, the justices were unanimous in finding that Arkansas prison officials had unjustifiably kept a Muslim inmate from growing a short beard.

Tuesday’s ruling does not go so far as to require New York to modify meal options for Williams, but it does say that the government must make a substantial showing to justify burdening how Williams practices his religion.

“We would be remiss not to express our disappointment with the DOC’s approach to litigating this case,” U.S. Circuit Judge John Walker Jr. wrote for a three-judge panel. “It has been seven years since Williams initially filed his complaint. During that time, the record indicates that every day, three meals a day, Williams has been forced to cobble together sufficient food to eat while adhering to his protected religious diet.”

The 28-page ruling that Williams largely subsists on a diet of hot cereal, bread, fruit, vegetables, soup and peanut butter. Williams sometimes trades the food he cannot eat with other inmates, but prison policy discourages the practice.

The New York Attorney General’s office directed requests for comment to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. A spokesman there said they had not yet seen the ruling, however, and declined to comment. On appeal, Williams was represented by Rajeev Muttreja with Jones Day.

“We are pleased with today’s ruling and currently considering next steps,” Muttreja said in an email.

In the ruling, Judge Walker noted that the existence of Green Haven’s kosher-meal facility “casts considerable doubt on the DOC’s claim that providing kosher vegetarian food to Williams is too expensive and administratively burdensome.”

“Indeed, it appears that the systems are now in place that [DOC officials] anticipated would be too costly to build — namely, systems for preparing food off site, individually sealing it, and then reheating it on site,” Walker added.

U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler concurred in the ruling, as did U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford, who sat on the panel by designation from Vermont.

State court records show that Williams racked up disciplinary charges during his incarceration. In 2012, an appeals court upheld a finding that Williams intentionally flooded his cell with toilet water. Last year, another appeals panel upheld a finding that Williams had made threats and committed harassment.

The nonprofit prisonsfoundation.org has published at least two writing collections by Williams, “Looking Back” and “Real Talk.”

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