Federal prison inmate sues over Passover foods

Only five foods allowed
April 10, 2008 7:37:10 AM PDT
An inmate has sued the federal prison for women in Danbury over limits on items Jewish prisoners can buy for Passover.Agnes Kole wants prison officials to allow the purchase of Passover staples such as chicken, gefilte fish and smoked salmon.

Kole has been an inmate for a dozen years and claims the prison has cut back the Passover purchase list from 12 items to just five - matzohs, grape juice, two kinds of chocolate and macaroons.

Kole, a New Jersey resident, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District in Bridgeport challenging the prison policy of limiting items.

She is a Nigerian national accused of heading a group that brought more than 60 pounds of nearly pure heroin into the United States between November 1990 and August 1993.

Kole told U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall this week that Passover items have been limited in retaliation because she complained last year when the prison cut the amount Jewish inmates could spend on Passover food from $290 to $100. Her efforts got the higher figure restored.

Stamford lawyer Bruce Koffsky, who represents Kole, charges that prison officials are violating her constitutional rights. He is asking Hall to restore the other staple foods to the ordering list.

"I'm not here to micromanage the Bureau of Prisons," Hall told Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Soloway. "But what is the penological reason for not offering these items?"

When Soloway suggested that security is an issue because items are being bartered, Hall shook her head.

"You can't tell me there is a security reason when you are offering salmon in December and not during Passover," the judge said.

Koffsky introduced a three-page monthly listing of items that can be purchased from the commissary. Those include wrist watches and athletic shoes. He submitted a lengthy list of food items including a pizza-making kit that all inmates can purchase during the December holiday season. At that time, inmates can spend up to $340.

Soloway told the judge that it's not as if Kole and the other 15 Jewish inmates at the Danbury prison aren't eating any kosher food.

"They get three hot square meals a day that are kosher," Soloway said.

However, Kole said the three meals "are insufficient for you to feel comfortable during the eight days of Passover."

Hall is expected to continue the hearing on Monday. The eight-day Passover holiday, during which observant Jews do not eat certain foods, including bread, begins April 19.