Jews in the US prison system are one of the most ostracized minorities in a world highly segregated by race. And it seems that one of the thorniest minefields is the cafeteria.
David Arenberg, incarcerated for many years in a state prison, wrote to the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2009 that he was an “untouchable” in the prison system, not white like the Aryans and skinheads, but clearly not Hispanic, black, or Native American. He explained that he got protection by striking a deal with the dominant (and somewhat moderate) Aryan Brotherhood to protect him from their more militant gang rival, the skinheads, in exchange for money and legal services.
But Arenberg notes that rules about food trump any available protection: “It is an inviolate rule that different races may not break bread together under any circumstances. Violating this rule leads to harsh consequences. If you eat at the same table as another race, you’ll get beaten down. If you eat from the same tray as another race, you’ll be put in the hospital. And if you eat from the same food item as another race, that is, after another race has already taken a bite of it, you can get killed. This is one area where even the [leaders of the gangs] don’t have any play.”
Ironically, Jewish faith and food do grant one thing that is desirable in the prison world–access to kosher meals. The kosher meals are often better than standard prison fare, and the sealed packaging makes the meals easy to transport and trade. In addition, laws governing the right to kosher meals in prison are vague, demanding only a “sincerely held belief” from the incarcerated. Many, including Messianic Jews, have sued over claims of denied meals.
For these reasons, some authorities estimate that 83 percent of prisoners receiving kosher meals are not Jews.
Steven Strauss, who was raised Jewish and spent two decades in state prisons, told the Jewish Daily Forward that kosher meals were popular among white supremacists. “I wore a yarmulke and said [to anti-Semites on the kosher diet], ‘thank you for supporting the Jewish community, we appreciate the business,’” he said.
But with Department of Corrections budgets dwindling and Jews comprising less than 1 percent of the prison population, many prisons are cutting kosher meal plans. The kosher meals can cost more than twice as much as regular meals. Some are being replaced with vegetarian or vegan options, which can cover both kosher and halal-observant prison populations. But lawsuits have already been successful in reinstating some of the programs.