Amy Levin: You’re in jail.  What will you eat on Thanksgiving day?  Most media coverage of religion in prison over the past year was about Rep. Peter King’s (R- NY) excessive concern with “prislam.” Regardless of how successfully King and his constituents played the public’s fear, the conversation managed to boil down to how dangerous religion is or is not for the “vulnerable” criminalized subject. Indeed, people tend to get nervous around minority rights, especially if said minorities have broken the law.

Though I taught a class to inmates at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, through Grinnell College’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program, I’ve never lived behind bars. But, as anyone can imagine, food is one of, if not the most vital aspect of life to an inmate whose physical body is in custody of the law. So are beliefs. That’s why the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”) is particularly important for inmates with religious dietary restrictions. The federal law states:

No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution.

This law guarantees that prisons provide religious individuals with a diet appropriate to their faith tradition. So what about dietary restrictions, like veganism and vegetarianism, that aren’t necessarily grounded in so-called religious beliefs?

In a recent article Colleen Kottke interviews the staff at the Fond du Lac County Jail, which provides special dietary meals for over 300 inmates “based on religious or medical needs.” Kottke notes that under the RLUIPA law, inmates can petition for special diets, but when it comes to non-religious practices of veganism or vegetarianism, prisoners have little chance. The founder of Vegans in Prison Support (VIPS) writes:

Many people might feel that honoring specialized diet requests are ‘coddling’ prisoners. But such diet requests aren’t about giving prisoners ‘special’ treatment. It’s part of the protection of the rights prisoners still have under the First and Eighth Amendments of the Constitution.

Steve Jones, a prison advocate from Wisconsin, tells Kottke:

You don’t necessarily have constitutional protection for being a vegan like you do for a religious belief.  Unless you can convince prison administrators that this is protected under your religion, then they’ll chalk it up to being a personal choice instead.

Though some prisons provide religious diets that are Kosher (Judaism), Halal (Muslim), and vegetarian (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism), even these meals must be petitioned for and are not guaranteed.  How difficult is it?  Per Kottke: “Less than 2 percent of state prison inmates receive special meals based upon their faith traditions.” Petitioning for a vegan meal on “non-religious” grounds is that much harder. According to Kottke, Manuel Salas, a Waupun Correctional Institution inmate and animal rights activist, staged a hunger strike after he was refused a plant-based diet, even as he claimed it was his faith tradition.

In a compelling piece law professor Sherry Colb argues in favor of a man who requests a vegan diet based on his Buddhism, and that denying him is both “illegal and foolish.” Colb even takes the case one step further and argues that even if the man wasn’t Buddhist, veganism would still fall under RLUIPA because the reasons for being vegan, like practicing non-violence as part of a world-view or believe system, is akin to religion. I would agree with Colb that, in some sense, belief is belief, but is playing the religion card giving a vegan prisoner rights, or taking them away? Respecting dietary “restrictions” based on religion is completely necessary, but privileging religious diets over those based on “personal choice” reveals more about how our system treats religion than it does individuals. How about letting people refuse turkey on Thanksgiving, regardless of whether God or their conscience tells them to?