Prisons poised to offer food prepared to Islamic standards

SACRAMENTO — James Fredrick Menefield lost his freedom eight years ago when he was sent to prison for murdering his girlfriend. But the Pleasant Valley State Prison inmate says he should not lose the right to follow dietary rules that come with his strict Muslim faith.

The state of California is on the verge of agreeing with him.

In proposed regulations, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wants to add the religiously prepared “halal” meat option to prison menus, which already include Jewish kosher and vegetarian meals.

The department is seeking the change in the face of lawsuits from several Muslim inmates alleging discrimination. Inmate attorneys have seized on the department’s decision in 2006 to offer special kosher meals to Jewish inmates.

“They’ve said Jewish prisoners have a right to practice their religion in a certain way, but Muslim prisoners don’t have that same right,” said Nathaniel Garrett, the court-appointed attorney for Menefield, who filed a civil rights complaint in federal court in 2008.

Victims-rights advocates counter that the state erred in offering any religious meals. Prisoners lost those rights when they committed a crime, said Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California.

“It would be cruel if we denied them food ... but we’re not denying them nourishment,” she said. “This country is made up of all kinds of religions. Where is it going to end?”

The Tribune sought to find whether this change might be implemented at the California Men’s Colony, but an official there did not respond to a query.

The Corrections Department enacted the kosher meals in a 2006 response to a lawsuit and a federal law passed during the Clinton administration that strengthened religious freedom in prison. The Muslim meal option would bring the state “further into compliance” and “would assist (Corrections) to defend against pending litigation” and to “avoid future costly litigation,” the proposed regulations state.

The Muslim meals would be “halal” — an Arabic term for lawful — under Islamic code. Interpretations vary, but in general, pork is prohibited and other meat must come from ritually slaughtered animals. Proper techniques include pronouncing the name of God at the time of the kill and ensuring that animals are nourished, well rested and not “stressed or excited” prior to slaughter, according to the book “Halal Food Production.”

The Corrections Department estimates the meals would cost 27 cents more per day for each inmate requesting them. Officials say the Muslim prisoner population is 5,000 — meaning the change could cost the state about $500,000 a year.

The regulations still require a final review by the Office of Administrative Law, a typically routine procedure. Approval would mark a victory for inmate-rights groups who have used the federal law to win other concessions.

The law — the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 — prohibits the government from putting a “substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person” in prison, unless there is a compelling interest.

Tribune staff contributed to this report.