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Texas Inmate Wins Right to Kosher Meals for Orthodox Jewish Prisoners

Orthodox Jews can now both serve their time with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and keep kosher.
Orthodox Jews can now both serve their time with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and keep kosher.
Image by Matt Griesmeyer
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An Orthodox Jewish inmate, who was imprisoned for his part in a fatal Houston robbery back in 1993, has won a 12-year legal battle with Texas, voluntarily dropping his lawsuit after convincing the Texas prison system to provide a kosher diet to all Orthodox Jewish inmates in the state.

Max Moussazadeh, convicted of murder, was in a Texas prison for more than 20 years because he acted as a lookout during a robbery in which another man shot and killed David Orlando, the owner of the Dairy Barn, as Orlando left the restaurant one night in September 1993.

Even though roughly 35 states have been supplying Orthodox Jewish inmates with kosher food for years, Texas has long balked at the idea, always claiming that providing kosher meals would be too expensive.

While serving, Moussazadeh started lobbying more than a decade ago to be fed kosher meals, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. It started in 2005, when Moussazadeh filed a grievance with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice because he was housed in the Eastham Unit and was being forced to eat non-kosher foods and would be punished by God for this sin.

To be considered kosher, the food has to be stored, prepared and served in specific ways outlined in Jewish law. Adherents abstain from pork, shellfish and mixing meat and dairy products in a single meal. The requirements to keep kosher food unsullied by the non-kosher food are pretty strict, but essentially serving kosher food means the food in question has to be cooked and served on a separate set of cookware, utensils and plates.

After his requests were denied by the TDCJ, Moussazadeh upped the ante and filed a federal lawsuit, pointing out that while the Texas prison system would provide specialized meals for those with specific dietary needs, like diabetics, he was not offered any kosher meal options. The lawsuit was based on a federal prison reform law enacted in 2000 that says prison officials can interfere with a prisoner's practicing religious freedom only if there's a very good reason.

Texas prison officials were initially reluctant, citing concerns about the cost of setting up separate kitchens for practicing Jewish inmates, but the lawsuit apparently made them reconsider. In 2007, in response to the lawsuit, Moussazadeh and all the other Orthodox Jewish prisoners were transferred to the Stringfellow Unit, where a kosher food program was set up.

The TDCJ chose to establish a kosher kitchen at Stringfellow because it found that while about 900 of more than 140,000 Texas inmates self-identify as Jewish, only about 70 were recognized as practicing while 90 others were in the process of converting. Thus it made the most financial sense to put together one kosher kitchen and move the practicing Jewish inmates to that unit.

Stringfellow was chosen because the unit can handle all but the most violent offenders and because a large Jewish community in the area meant it would be easier to get everything kosher-certified. The TDCJ sectioned off a part of a prison kitchen and purchased utensils, a refrigerator, a microwave and a burner to be used exclusively to prepare kosher food. Setting up the kosher food program cost just over $8,000, according to court records.

Moussazadeh was at Stringfellow for two years and he consistently ate the kosher meals, even the ones he described as “highly distasteful,” since they contained tofu, according to court records. However, Moussazadeh's lawsuit was never actually settled because TDCJ officials refused to guarantee that he would never be denied kosher food. The district court moved to dismiss his case, but Moussazadeh appealed the dismissal.

At the same time, Moussazadeh was moved to the higher-security Stiles Unit after he committed disciplinary infractions and lost access to free kosher meals. The Stiles Unit offered kosher meals, but unlike the system at Stringfellow, at Stiles the prepackaged meals were only available for a fee. This prompted the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the dismissal of his lawsuit because it was no longer moot, as he was no longer housed at Stringfellow, where he could get free kosher meals.

The case bounced through the court system on various points. A district court found that Moussazadeh was not "sincere" in his beliefs because he had purchased candy and coffee that was not certified as kosher from the prison commissary, but once again the Fifth Circuit wasn't having it.

That court looked at the case again and found the failure to provide a free kosher diet was a substantial burden on Moussazadeh’s religious practice. It rejected the TDCJ’s claim that providing kosher meals to prisoners in higher security classifications would strain the department’s food budget, noting that it would cost only $88,000 per year to provide every observant Jewish TDCJ prisoner with the most expensive type of pre-packaged kosher meals, which amounted to less than 0.005% of the prison system’s $183.5 million annual food budget.

Once this decision prompted the state to begin providing a kosher diet for all TDCJ Orthodox Jewish inmates, Moussazadeh put the lawsuit on hold until he was released from prison, according to the release. The suit was finally dismissed on Friday following his release from prison in 2016.

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