Thursday, June 10, 2004

RICHMOND — A federal judge yesterday threw out a lawsuit filed by a Jewish inmate who said the state discriminated against female prisoners by limiting special religious diets to its maximum-security prison for women, while providing such meals in all men’s prisons.

Inmate Mitzi Ann Hamilton, serving 51/2 years for fraud and forgery at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, also said the Department of Corrections refused to provide her with certified kosher meals as part of its “common-fare” diet designed to accommodate inmates’ religious beliefs.

In a 20-minute hearing, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams cut off arguments by lawyers for Hamilton and the state, saying he understood the law in such cases.

Hamilton’s attorneys had asked for a preliminary injunction against the state, but Judge Williams dismissed the case instead.

“I find that Hamilton has not presented a substantial federal claim,” said the judge, describing her charges as “niggling complaints.”

“If I followed Hamilton’s reasoning, she and every other inmate would decide what meals are served,” Judge Williams said.

Richard McKewen, Hamilton’s attorney, said he will appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Department of Corrections offers the common-fare diet of tomatoes, beans, sardines and iceberg lettuce to female inmates only at the maximum-security Fluvanna prison, the lawsuit claimed.

The common-fare meals do not meet requirements of a kosher diet in either the substance of the meal or in preparation, Hamilton said. Kosher meals are based on stringent dietary restrictions set forth in the Bible.

The state does not provide kosher meals to any inmates but does provide common-fare meals to male inmates at low-, medium- and maximum-security prisons, according to the lawsuit.

Hamilton said she asked about receiving a religious meal immediately upon entering state custody in May 2003 after convictions in Henrico and Westmoreland counties.

Even though she had the lowest security classification, the department assigned Hamilton to the maximum-security Fluvanna prison based on her meal request, instead of to a lower-security prison, the lawsuit said.

Hamilton said the state violated her religious rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

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