Inmates' suit says Fresno County Jail denied kosher meals

The Fresno BeeJuly 1, 2014 

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Fresno County Jail inmates who say they are Jewish and have been denied kosher meals.

The lawsuit said the three men -- Dimitrios Kastis, Buck Eugene Plumlee and Robert Sorensen -- converted to Judaism while in jail last year and want kosher meals to meet their religious commitments. They also said that after their requests were turned down, they were unable to get forms they needed to file an appeal to their rejected complaint within the required deadlines.

They are seeking kosher meals, an improved grievance policy and attorneys fees.

In their grievances, each man said they believed in the teachings of the first five books in the Bible, the Old Testament, but two of the men misspelled their newfound faith as "Jewdism." The third spelled Judaism correctly.

None of the men met directly with a rabbi while in the jail.

Rabbi Levy Zirkind said he didn't meet with the men "just because they woke up one day and had an epiphany that they were Jewish. It doesn't work that way."

He said if either parent of an inmate was Jewish and the inmate was actively part of a congregation, "I would be happy to sign off."

He said those are the state's rules, not his personal agenda.

Since the rabbi did not visit the men, jail officials said: "Kosher meal is denied based on the inability to provide the information necessary to verify his affiliation with the Jewish faith," and "the local rabbi will not support the inmate's request for a kosher diet based solely on his desire to convert to Judaism."

Lawyer Novella Coleman, who represents the men, said the lawsuit is targeting the jail's failure to provide for the inmate's needs.

"They deserve an opportunity to explain what their religious beliefs are," Coleman said. "They are without an opportunity to explain how a religious diet fits in with the exercise of their faith."

She said the jail's response was against state and federal law.

"The comments that the jail officials wrote clearly contravene federal and state law," she said. "The fact that the jail would deny these requests without ascertaining their sincerity flies in the face of federal and state law."

Inmates, Coleman said, depend on jailers for all their needs, such as food, medicine, clothing, access to legal counsel and all basic life essentials.

She points out that a majority of inmates -- 69% -- are in the jail awaiting trial and have not been criminally convicted.

Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie said county and jail officials will review the lawsuit, and "if we're doing something wrong, we'll make it right."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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