Inmate’s Fight for Vegan Food Lands in 11th Circuit

ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney for a Muslim inmate who says his civil rights were violated when a Georgia prison refused to provide him with a vegan diet conforming to his religious beliefs asked an 11th Circuit panel Friday to reinstate his case.

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Marquise Robbins, who is serving a 25-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter, gang participation, and attempted murder, filed a federal pro se complaint in 2015 against the warden and food service director of Valdosta State Prison.

He claims the prison officials violated his First and Eighth Amendment rights by failing to provide him with properly prepared vegan meals that conform to his religious dietary needs. He also alleges the inadequate meals violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Due to his Islamic beliefs, Robbins says he cannot consume non-halal animal byproducts or meat. For a meat to be certified halal under Islamic law, it cannot be a forbidden cut — such as meat from hindquarters — or come from forbidden animals, such as pigs.

To ensure that his religious beliefs were not violated, Robbins requested and was approved to receive vegan meals while incarcerated. But in his lawsuit, he called the meals “meager, improperly prepared and at times inedible.”

He claims his vegan meals were not kept separate from non-vegan meals, causing them to become contaminated under his religious guidelines. He also says coffee served to inmates was contaminated with dishwashing chemicals and ice was contaminated with insects.

Robbins says he was faced with the choice to either eat food that did not conform with his religious beliefs or suffer malnourishment. He claims to have lost 15 pounds and suffered headaches, fatigue, abdominal pains and dizziness due to a lack of adequate food.

He was prescribed multivitamins and supplemental meals by prison medical staff to combat his malnutrition, but alleges the supplemental meals still contained food he could not eat due to his dietary restrictions.

In August 2016, Senior U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands granted the prison officials’ motions to dismiss Robbins’ complaint, adopting a magistrate judge’s recommendation finding that the inmate failed to specifically allege that the vegan meals he received interfered with his religious beliefs.

The magistrate judge also found that Robbins failed to allege that the prison officials “knowingly provided less than reasonably adequate food to [him] in his requested vegan meals” and did not prove that his “religious beliefs have been substantially burdened by the provision of what he has deemed to be diluted, unsatisfactory vegan meals.”

Attorney Sarah Sternlieb of Holwell Shuster & Goldberg, arguing Friday morning on behalf of Robbins, asked a three-judge 11th Circuit panel to reverse the district court’s dismissal or remand the case to allow Robbins to amend his complaint.

“Robbins was put to a First Amendment choice because he was not given enough to eat. [He was] forced to choose to either violate his religion by eating contaminated food or starve,” Sternlieb said. “On Saturdays, the meals he received were five PB&J sandwiches which he couldn’t eat because he couldn’t eat jelly because it is contaminated with pork products. The medical meals he was provided with contained milk and meat so he couldn’t eat them either.”

“If he ate the food, how could it be physical infliction of pain and suffering under the Eighth Amendment?” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Ed Carnes asked.

“We know he experienced health effects. Even if he ate the food, it shows that it wasn’t enough, it was inadequate and that would violate the Eighth Amendment,” Sternlieb responded.

But Assistant Attorney General Deborah Gore, arguing on behalf of the Georgia prison officials, told the panel that since Robbins was transferred out of Valdosta State Prison in 2016, his complaints against the Valdosta officials are moot.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Clevenger III pointed out that the constitutional claims in Robbins’ case could still stand.

“We have three months in which there’s an allegation of contamination to such an extent he was forced to make a choice on his religion. He was being put to a choice, saying ‘If I eat this I’m not going to the promised land, but if I don’t eat this I’ll starve.’ Why is there not a First Amendment question here?” Clevenger asked.

“He hasn’t alleged that he hasn’t been able to eat any meal. He hasn’t pleaded that,” Gore responded. “He says his trays were placed next to non-vegan trays, he says his religious beliefs require him not to eat jelly when he doesn’t know how the animal was slain… He says the choice I was put to was starvation and malnutrition or eat[ing] a non-vegan meal.”

“You’re saying he had to make a choice based on religion,” Clevenger pointed out.

“He does,” Gore replied.

“Isn’t that enough?” Clevenger asked.

Clevenger and Carnes were joined on the panel by Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Julie Carnes.

The panel did not indicate when it will reach a decision in the case.

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