Not kosher

A Dallas County Jail inmate claims his junk-food diet is religious persecution

Samuel Abraham's cell in the Dallas County Jail offers, as one would expect, few amenities.

On one side of the small quarters where Abraham has lived since his arrest November 4 sits a narrow, hard bed. On the other, a stainless steel contraption doubles as a toilet and sink.

But in the doorway lies a bounty--three plastic grocery bags overflowing with dozens of packages of Fritos, Milky Ways, Mars bars, and other delights.

The candy and crackers from the prison commissary aren't there to fill some massive hankering for empty calories. Abraham, an Orthodox Jew, claims the stockpile symbolizes the depths to which he has been forced to stoop because jail officials have denied his First Amendment rights.

"Did you see those bags in my room?" Abraham inquires disdainfully in his thick Romanian accent. "It's junk food."

Jail officials have refused to prepare him kosher meals, a practice penal institutions in other states have been forced to do by their courts. Instead, Abraham's jailers have placed him in the infirmary so they can watch his food intake. He eats meals from the regular kitchen, without pork and with extra servings of bread and vegetables.

Abraham says the food does not meet the strict standards required by kosher laws, which in addition to forbidding shellfish and pig products also call for meat and dairy products to be separated, even during preparation. "Most of the plate, I give it back," he says.

He eats some bread, but is afraid to touch the vegetables, concerned they may have been prepared with non-kosher meats. And he liberally supplements his meals with crackers and candies even though the packaged food badly exacerbates his ailing health. He says he has suffered from cancer and still is seeking treatment for digestive-related illnesses.

Abraham has worn a towel over his head because his jailers have stripped him of his yarmulke, the traditional skull cap worn by observant Jewish men. Assistant Deputy Chief Charles McKinney says that all prisoners are stripped of religious dress, and Abraham's yarmulke is no exception. Jail staff has opted to keep Abraham in the infirmary not just to watch his meals, but to protect him as an identifiable Jew against bigoted and violent prisoners. (Shortly before press time, a lawyer for the jail said he instructed staff to allow Abraham to wear his yarmulke.)

Even without his kosher diet, jail officials are quick to point out, Abraham doesn't appear to be starving. The gray-bearded 51-year-old stands 6 feet tall and weighs 212 pounds, about 12 more than when he entered the jail.

Abraham was arrested in North Dallas after being stopped for a traffic violation. Police learned he was a fugitive from New York, where he was convicted of vehicular assault.

Abraham claims he is a native of Romania but holds French citizenship. He has lived all over the world: in France, Israel, New York, and most recently Washington, D.C.

He came to Dallas this summer to seek free medical assistance at Parkland Hospital, where he says he was treated by the oncology unit.

He denies he was convicted for vehicular assault but concedes that he had previously acquired 11 traffic tickets in New York, where he attended a "mini trial" and defended himself. Abraham believes the proceedings resulted in a mistrial.

But Abraham provides those sketchy details about his background only when pressed.

"I like maybe," he says, "to keep to the point of the story." For him, the point is the violation of his civil liberties.

For his jailers, it's Abraham's criminal history that presents the problem. The records Dallas County jailers have obtained from New York reflect that Abraham fled New York in June before the punishment phase of his trial. He remains jailed because he has refused to sign papers that would allow for his extradition to New York. By law, Dallas officials can hold him for 90 days while awaiting extradition papers from the governor of New York.

Sheriff Bob Knowles says that although the jail has housed Orthodox Jews before, he has never faced an inmate with such rigidly defined dietary requirements. Knowles received a list of approved foods for Abraham from a rabbi that "we couldn't possibly comply with." Instead, jailers have been giving him extra amounts of the foods he does eat.

Knowles concedes that the kosher requirements presented such a hurdle for the jail that he was eager to get Abraham off his hands and investigated the possibility of releasing him. But New York officials insisted he be held for extradition. The Dallas jail expects papers from New York any day now.

There are reasons for Dallas jailers to be concerned about Abraham's complaints.

In May, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because an Arizona prison accommodated the dietary requirements of other religious groups--Muslims, Sikhs, and Seventh-Day Adventists--it had to prepare special foods for an Orthodox Jewish inmate.

In September 1997, a federal judge in Pittsburgh ruled similarly, barring the prison from charging an inmate for supplements he had purchased from the commissary.

Although those precedents don't directly affect Dallas County, Isaac M. Jaroslawicz, a lawyer and the director of the Aleph Institute, says he uses them to pressure county jails such as Dallas into serving kosher meals. (The nonprofit, Miami-based institute represents Jews nationwide who are in institutional settings.) Jaroslawicz argues the courts have clearly established that constitutional rights are at risk when jails fail to meet prisoners' nutritional needs and provide them meals inconsistent with the tenets of their religion.

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