Federal judge denies NYC inmate’s request for matzoh, grape juice

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A New York City inmate has no right under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment to matzoh and grape juice, a federal judge has ruled.

Christopher A. Henry sued Dora Schriro, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, after officials at the DOC’s Anna M. Koss Center denied his request for matzoh and grape juice. Henry contended these items were essential to the practice of Judaism and sued for nearly $10 billion in his complaint.

U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin dismissed Henry’s claim in her opinion in Henry v. Schriro. The Department of Correction conceded that Henry sincerely believed he needed matzoh and grape juice on a regular basis to practice Judaism. However, the judge ruled Aug. 2 that the Department of Correction had legitimate penological reasons to deny Henry’s requests.

In Turner v. Safley and O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz — a pair of 1987 decisions — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison officials do not violate inmates’ free-speech and free-exercise rights if the prison officials’ policies are reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns.

Corrections officials asserted two penological reasons to deny Henry’s requests: (1) reducing perceptions of favoritism for particular inmates and, thus, reducing tension and possibly violence; and (2) efficiently allocating a limited operating budget by reducing unnecessary costs.

Scheindlin accepted these reasons. She wrote that “providing individualized meals to a single inmate might well foster an impression of favoritism, which could lead to jealousy and resentment among the inmate population, which in turn could cause tension and threaten prison security.”

She also found that “providing individualized meals to one or several inmates would involve a substantial increase in administrative costs, and would likely cause demands by other inmates for individualized meals, further increasing administrative costs.”

Scheindlin noted that the denial of matzoh and grape juice did not prevent Henry from practicing Judaism, as he was provided with kosher meals and able to meet with a rabbi.

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