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Vegetarianism in the News


August 1, 2003 -- Vegparadise News Bureau


Go to Jail, but Don't Expect Vegan Food


"Go to Jail.
Go Directly to Jail.
Do not pass Go.
Do not collect $200."

Those are the words on that small yellow card in the game, "Monopoly." In real life that same card would read: " Go to Jail. Go directly to Jail. Do not receive vegan food. Do not go to court."

Three animal rights activists arrested in New York learned a real life "Monopoly" lesson on July 16, 2003 when federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin refused to order officials at Rikers Island Prison in New York to provide them with vegan meals.

Inmates Jennifer Greenberg,17, Joshua Schwartz, 20, and Benjamin Persky, 24, claimed in a lawsuit that they received repeated denials for their requests for vegan meals without meat, dairy products and eggs. In their lawsuit they said these denials "have prevented plaintiffs from practicing their sincerely held ethical, moral, and religious beliefs, thereby causing severe and continuing physical, psychological, and emotional harm."

The three prisoners were arrested and charged with damaging property at Huntingdon Life Sciences in an animal rights demonstration against the laboratory that uses animals in testing drugs and chemicals.

In the lawsuit the three said, "Animal based diets are in conflict with Jewish mandates to preserve human health and attend to the welfare of animals."

Although Judge Scheindlin did not question the sincerity of the plantiffs' beliefs that Judaism compels the following of a vegan diet, she ruled the prisoners did not prove they were irreparably harmed by the prison's diet policy.

Dr. Richard Schwartz, President of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, was told by one of the lawyers in the case that courts are reluctant to tell administrative agencies like prisons what to do, in this case what food to serve. The judge, noting that two of the prisoners, Schwartz and Greenberg, would be released in a week and the other, Persky, would soon be transferred to an upstate prison, found no urgency to issue an injunction.

On behalf of the three plaintiffs, Dr. Schwartz filed an affidavit to support their case. Cautious not to condone the actions that led to their imprisonment, Dr. Schwartz said," I applaud their sensitivity, dedication, and courage in attempting to apply Jewish values to their diets, even at the risk of their own health." As part of the case, Dr. Schwartz submitted five rabbinic certifications in support of the three plaintiffs. The certifications were from rabbis from New York, Boston, and Israel.

No Vegan Meal for a Pie Thrower
Like the inmates at Rikers, prisoners at state and local prisons have found officials reluctant to provide vegan meals. In 1999 animal rights activist Gerard Livernois was sent to the San Francisco County Jail on two counts: participating in a sit-in demonstration and throwing a pie in San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's face. Sheriff Michael Hennessy denied Livernois' request for vegan food saying, "It is not good policy" to provide one meal to one prisoner and another to 2100 others. He suggested Livernois' safety might be jeopardized by other prisoners wanting similar treatment.

After receiving hundreds of phone calls, e-mails. and letters on Livernois' behalf, Sheriff Hennessy ordered that the prisoner be served vegan meals. Some of the e-mails came from distant places like Italy and Switzerland. The jail had previously offered kosher and hallal meals for Jewish and Muslim inmates, and ten different medical options for health needs.

After relenting, the sheriff declared, " I've got to admit to my own ignorance about vegetarianism and the depth of commitment that people have to this. From what I've learned, I'm convinced their beliefs are sincere, and they're not trying to manipulate the system."

San Francisco County was the first county in California to serve vegan food to inmates. It was not the first in the nation because Oregon and Georgia were already providing vegan meals in prisons.

"I'm Willing To Die for It"
In May 2002 animal rights activist Sarah Roberts, 26, learned that Los Angeles County was not as progressive as San Francisco when it came to serving vegan meals to prisoners. Arrested for her participation in an anti-capitalist demonstration in Long Beach, California, May 1, 2001, Roberts refused to plead guilty and pay the $100 fine to avoid a jury trial and possibly be sent to jail.

After a trial that lasted two weeks in May 2002, Roberts was found guilty of wrongful assembly and wearing a mask with the intent to commit a crime. The judge sentenced her to six months in jail in the Twin Towers Correctional facility in downtown Los Angeles. Roberts told the judge she was a vegan and was "willing to die for it."

Jail officials greeted her request for vegan food with bologna sandwiches, eggs, and oatmeal with milk. When she complained, they brought her apples and oranges.

Fortunately for her, she was interviewed in the jail by radio station KPFK for their program Democracy Now. The pressure on jail officials following the program led to her release almost six months early and being placed on house arrest. She had to spend the rest of her term with an electronic monitoring device strapped to her ankle. She was not permitted to leave her apartment for more than 30 seconds at a time.

Activist Shuns "Nutriloaf"
Activist Randall Mark, 23, found that Missoula, Montana prison officials were no more sympathetic to vegan diets than other correctional facilities around the United States. Arrested for protesting the killing of wild buffalo that strayed out of Yellowstone Park, Mark was sent to Missoula Detention Facility to serve his 60-day sentence.

The facility serves fruit, vegetables, and grains to prisoners who eat meat, but the only vegetarian option is "Nutriloaf," which is not accompanied by fruits, vegetables, and grains. "Nutriloaf" is a baked bean and flour combination with shredded carrots, spinach, raisins, potato, rice, (non-vegan) shredded cheese, and bread that is used as a punishment food for violent prisoners at the facility. For more on meatless prison punishment meals and a recipe for Prison Loaf (a Nutriloaf look alike and taste alike), see the VIP story at http://www.vegparadise.com/news18.html

Mark refused the "Nutriloaf" and demanded a diverse vegan menu. After prison officials denied his request, he went on a hunger strike for 38 days. The hunger strike ended when the officials decided to feed him vegan meals. Mark's friend and fellow activist Stan Wilson credits a telephone campaign and a planned rally outside of the facility, for the change in attitude toward the vegan inmate. At the rally Mark's supporters prepared to present the jailers with vegan food.

Captain Susan Hintz, director of the facility, says she was unaware that Mark was on a hunger strike or that he was suffering any ill effects from his self-starvation. She says a vegan diet is a major concession for any prisoner because the jail is only required to provide special diets for religious or medical reasons.

"That's a lifestyle choice," says Hintz referring to Mark's vegan diet. "What would we do if we had to start making 350 different meals?"

Federal Prisons Recognize Vegans
Federal prisons have been more attuned to veganism after Keith Maydak, a prisoner at the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania facility, sued the Bureau of Prisons in 1997 to demand vegan meals. On May 8, 2000, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said Maydak was likely to win his case, and granted a temporary injunction requiring the prison to serve him soy milk.

Beginning in October 2000, federal prisons began offering a no-flesh diet to inmates. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons denied that the court case influenced the decision. "The intent of the meatless alternatives is to meet the changing dietary habits and the religious dietary needs of the diverse inmate population."

VIP's advice to protesters and activists: STAY OUT OF JAIL. Although there is some movement to accommodate vegans, most state and local facilities are not going to offer vegans a wholesome meal. Federal prisons obviously offer diverse vegan options.

In all of these stories there are two common threads. First, those sent to jail stood their ground in their unwillingness to accept anything but vegan food. Second, and perhaps most important, they were able to mobilize support from a community willing to make phone calls, write letters, send emails, and contact the media. This blitz of communications from their supporters made a difference in most instances.


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