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April 20, 2014

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Judge rejects settlement on kosher meal service in Nevada prisons

A federal judge removed an injunction on the Nevada Department of Corrections Friday, freeing it to fully implement a plan to reform the system for inmate meals, which some prisoners said would deprive them of access to kosher foods, forcing them to break the tenets of their religion.

In June 2011, attorneys for Howard Ackerman, an Orthodox Jew, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas to block what they said was a plan that would interfere with the ability of Orthodox Jews to observe the tenets of their religion. A class of 205 inmates was later certified for the case, as the policy purportedly would affect hundreds of inmates with religious dietary restrictions.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro, citing disputes among the class members, rejected a proposed settlement agreement, decertified the class and lifted an injunction that prevented the state Department of Corrections from implementing its cost-saving “common fare” meal plan, that offers the same meal to every prisoner.

When the lawsuit was first filed in 2011, the Department of Corrections, represented by the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, argued that the “common fare” menu was not finalized and they intended to meet the needs of inmates with religiously restricted diets.

"For some time now, the NDOC (Department of Corrections) has been formulating a 'common-fare' menu and related food-preparation protocols to accommodate the religious needs of NDOC inmates. However, the NDOC does not yet know what final form the menu or protocols will take,” the state argued in documents filed with the court. “To be sure, the menu and protocols are still in a state of flux, and the NDOC intends to have the menu be certified as kosher.”

In February 2012 the state informed the plaintiffs’ attorney that the “common fare” meal plan would be rolled out, and the court granted an injunction stipulating that all previous recipients of kosher meals should be given the option of continuing with those meals while the case moved forward.

In August a settlement agreement was proposed in which an outside organization would certify that the correction facilities’ kitchens are equipped for kosher preparation of meals, prisons would provide an alternative to the common fare menu if necessary and the plaintiffs would waive their rights to pursue further, similar claims.

In September the state Board of Examiners approved a $387,310 contract to use Scroll K/Vaad Hakashrus, a nonprofit group, to provide koshering of kitchens and ongoing rabbinical supervision of kosher food preparation for prisoners.

At least 46 inmates formally objected to the terms of the settlement, including Ackerman, arguing in letters to the court that the common fare menu was not equal to the regular menu, that nutritional needs were not met, and that they objected to releasing the Department of Corrections from a broad set of claims.

The judge, in her decision, cited many factors such as a weak case on the part of the plaintiffs, but also alluded to conflict between the attorney and the various members of the class.

“Weighing most heavily against approval of the proposed settlement are the strenuous objections from members of the class and from the lead plaintiff, both to the settlement terms and to the conflicts of interest and adequacy of legal representation of class counsel,” Navarro wrote.

Jacob Hafter, who represented Ackerman and the class, was in favor of the settlement, and could not be reached immediately for comment.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the case, and the Nevada Department of Corrections did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday.

On Friday, Hafter filed a motion for the court to reconsider its decision. Hafter objects broadly to the court’s decision and argues specifically against the orders to decertify the class, end the injunction and not approve the settlement agreement.

“(T)he Court appears to suggest that this office has failed the Class and that this office should have done something more in its representation of them. What the Court fails to recognize, however, is that all of the issues raised by the certain class members stem from one issue — that they were not happy with the quality and/or content of the new meals,” Hafter wrote in the motion. “This is a new and distinct claim — a claim, perhaps, grounded in equal protection — not in free exercise of religion.”

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  1. I am thinking "religious dietary restrictions" may be offered on an airline, not a prison. One you choose the other you chose wrong.