Monday, April 19, 2004

RICHMOND — A Jewish inmate said in a lawsuit filed yesterday that Virginia discriminates against female prisoners by limiting special religious diets to its maximum-security prison for women, while providing such meals in all men’s prisons.

Mitzi Ann Hamilton, serving 5 years for fraud and forgery at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, also says the Department of Corrections has refused to provide her with certified kosher meals as part of its “common-fare” diet designed to accommodate inmates’ religious beliefs.

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

The common-fare meals do not meet requirements of a kosher diet in either the substance of the meal or in preparation, Hamilton says in the federal court lawsuit.

Kosher meals are based on stringent dietary restrictions set forth in the Old Testament.

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 says she asked about receiving a religious meal upon entering state custody in May 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 says.

As a result, Hamilton “has been housed with violent, aggressive inmates, and she does not have access to the … rehabilitative services offered at minimum-security prisons,” the lawsuit says.

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said he could not comment on a pending lawsuit.

Hamilton, 36, said she was not demanding too much.

“One thing you bring into prison with you is your belief in God,” she said in a phone interview. “The Torah stipulates that I observe kosher,” which she did before entering prison, she said.

She also says the state interferes with her attempts to practice Judaism.

She said that during Passover this month she requested a ceremonial Seder Plate consisting of horseradish, a sprig of parsley, a vegetable, a small amount of chopped apples and nuts, and a hard-boiled egg.

“Much like the Christian Eucharist feast, the meal is symbolic … and not intended to replace a substantive meal,” according to the lawsuit.

But when Hamilton began her Passover meal, prison officials refused to give her both the Seder Plate and the common-fare meal, telling her she had to choose, the suit says.

“By way of contrast, defendants do not require Christians to choose between the Eucharist and a regular meal,” Hamilton argues.

The lawsuit also says the prison does not permit her to have regular access to a rabbi and Jewish religious materials or allow her to conduct traditional Jewish ceremonies. Christian inmates, however, have a chaplain, religious services and a library with Christian materials and celebrate Christian holidays.

The lawsuit says the state is violating Hamilton’s religious rights guaranteed under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

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