- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - An Iowa inmate’s religious rights were violated when state officials served him food prepared in cookware that previously touched meat and other ingredients, a judge recently ruled.

The ruling means the state Department of Corrections will serve Mahendrakumar Patel, 46, prepackaged meals that were not prepared with cookware or utensils previously in contact with such ingredients, the Des Moines Register reported (https://dmreg.co/1cRE1iS ). A settlement approved by the Iowa Appeal Board also means the state must pay $12,000 for Patel’s legal fees.

Patel has practiced a sect of Hinduism since birth. Followers believe no animal should die for a meal. He claimed in a lawsuit that state officials failed to take his dietary requests seriously. He has staged several hunger strikes to object to how certain foods were prepared.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Ross Walters ruled the state’s actions violated a federal law that prohibits governments from placing burdens on a prisoner’ ability to worship.

Prison officials said the staff tried to provide Patel with meals that did not conflict with his religious beliefs.

“We have tried to make accommodations with him, but it seems that every time that we’ve reached one accommodation then there would be another objection on his part,” said Greg Ort, the former warden of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, said in court testimony last year. “We seem to be unable to reach a satisfaction with him.”

Patel acknowledged those attempts from staff, but he said some of those efforts involved his discovery that the food was potentially contaminated in its preparation. He also said he was punished for refusing to eat the food that he was given.

“There is stuff I cannot eat, so I complain about it but they said, ‘That’s all you’re going to get,’” Patel testified in court.

Patel’s attorney, Patrick Ingram, said prison officials have a habit of denying such prisoner requests.

“The Department of Corrections always believes they’re pulling something on them,” he said. “Diet is the issue that pops up most frequently.”

Prepackaged foods, which Patel is now being served, are more expensive, said Ort, the former warden, in his testimony.

“We’re only obligated to supply what is a balanced diet, so to go into providing more is setting a precedent that could lead us into difficult territory,” he said.

Patel was sentenced in 2006 to 25 years in prison for stalking and attempting to kill his girlfriend.

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, https://www.desmoinesregister.com

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