Foundation Calls Jail Policy “Baloney”

The national Freedom From Religion Foundation recently protested a policy by the Dane County (Wis.) Sheriff’s Office denying inmates vegetarian options unless they cite religious justification.

Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Foundation wrote Sheriff Gary Hamblin a letter on Dec. 11 asking him to end the religious discrimination.

“The law requires even-handed treatment by the government of its citizens without showing preference for those who are religious. Any choices or privileges offered to religious inmates must be equally available to nonreligious or ‘no preference’ inmates,” Gaylor wrote.

Last summer the jail, in a controversial move, began serving only baloney sandwiches for all lunches, as well as Saturday dinner. Gaylor noted the jail should certainly be able to offer peanut butter options at equal cost.

Hamblin responded on Jan. 5, confirming and defending the discriminatory policy, which restricts vegetarian meals to inmates citing religious or medical reasons only.

The jail’s written policy makes the “jail chaplain” the arbiter of who qualifies for vegetarian meals, including judging whether a “prisoner’s professed religious faith represents a recognized and established faith.”

Following the unresponsive reply, the Foundation asked Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk to look into its charge that Hamblin is discriminating against nonreligious vegetarian inmates.

“The Sheriff appears to hold a novel idea that there is a constitutional right to vegetarianism only if someone believes in a (bonafide) vegetarian god,” Gaylor wrote Falk, in requesting her assistance in ending this civil rights violation.

In a news story about the issue, Capital Times reporter Steven Elbow interviewed the woman detainee who had contacted the Foundation for help. Ruth Anderson, 42, told the newspaper she lost eight pounds during her first three and a half weeks in Dane County Jail. Anderson has not eaten meat in 30 years.

“It’s tough,” she told the reporter. “For me to say I’m not religious shut off any way I had to get a vegetarian diet.” Anderson has managed to “hoard stuff–peanut butter, cereal, little packets of cheese and crackers,” against jail policy. She said she has been disciplined about food-related problems 10 or 12 times in the past three months, involving 24-hour “lockdowns” in her cell preventing daily exercise.

Anderson, who was jailed for a drug-related problem, said she was awaiting transfer to a state institution: “Hopefully, the food will be better.”

Dane County Jail supervisor Cpt. Mike Plumer told the Capital Times (Jan. 9, 2004): “We’re talking about whether to change it [the policy].” He said Anderson was only the second inmate in four years to appeal the denial of a vegetarian diet, but he did not know how many inmates had been denied vegetarian meals who did not appeal.

Freedom From Religion Foundation