Evo DiConcini Federal Courthouse, Tucson
Protesting CCA's 30 year anniversary
(May 15, 2013)
As some of you may recall, I heard from some prisoners at Eloy's Corrections Corporation of America's (CCA) LaPalma Correctional Center (LPCC) in May. Kenneth Santiago, a Messianic Jew imprisoned there, wrote to express concern that the Kosher food program there was being progressively degraded, such that it failed to meet the Kosher program standards established under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) by the California Code of Regulations, Title 15.
Here are the sworn statements by the Kosher food program participants about their observations and concerns.
As you can see from previous blog posts, the guys have been fighting this for awhile, trying to go through the internal chain of command, while also appealing to CDCR authorities when it became clear that neither CCA nor Trinity Services had any intention of complying with California law. Unfortunately, as documented here, this guy Joseph Moss from CDCR's Contract Beds Unit (CBU) responded to Kenny's complaints last fall by threatening him, saying something to the effect of how he's never leaving Arizona - which I took to mean that Kenny would finish his sentence far from family...certainly not that he would die here. That threat was more loaded than anyone knew at the time.
Throughout the course of May and June the prisoners have been going back and forth with the LaPalma administration and Trinity food service director Hallahan. The chaplain in the middle who wasn't amenable to violating civil rights or California statutes was finally replaced by a yes-man willing to issue illegitimate tickets to Messianic prisoners, trying to get them thrown off the Kosher program so they have no standing to complain about it's degredation anymore.
I did extensive research on the issue, and was certain that if the right people there knew what was going on, the CDCR would intervene responsibly and compel CCA and Trinity to be in compliance with California law. So, in early June I sent an email about all this to Chaplain Skaggs, Natalie Fransham, and Laurie Maurino at CDCR expressing concern about the Kosher program, and sent a cetified copy of the email to the Secretary of the CDCR, Jeffrey Beard. My email box sat silent; I began to wonder if anyone had even gotten my message.
I received a letter a couple of weeks later from the CBU Chief, Dalinda Harman. That letter is here - and it's really just bureaucratic doublespeak that still fails to answer the basic question: How is the CCA LaPalma's "Global Kosher Diet" in compliance with the CDCR's regulations about Kosher foods? Her answer: "CBU and LPCC have been working in conjunction to ensure compliance with regards to Jewish Kosher Diets" (bold is mine).
Really, now: "working in conjunction to ensure compliance"? All she has to do is pick up the phone and tell the LaPalma Warden to FOLLOW the LAW - how much work does that take? That letter just tells me that CBU is complicit, and there's a bigger agenda that's emboldened CCA and Trinity foods to take these actions unchecked.
As Harman notes, by the way, the guys initially started to fast back in May - but that was postponed. Any resolution seemed a ways off at the time, and the guys were threatened with being put in the hole as hunger strikers, so they re-evaluated their strategies. The plan is being reserved for the point at which all meals are served in violation of CDCR policies, if all other options have been exhausted.
About the same time I received the letter from CDCR CBU, I heard from Kenny that a test that had been scheduled to prepare him to begin treatment for hepatitis C was abruptly cancelled by a doctor at CDCR (the same week I sent those emails to CDCR staff, ironically), and that Kenny is no longer considered a candidate for the lifesaving medication protocol. This really alarmed me, especially in light of Moss' threat. I don't know how to read it as anything but a lethal dose of retaliation.
Dr. Keith Ivens, the CDCR medical administrator who cancelled the test initially did so claiming Kenny had no evidence of cirrhosis, and therefore didn't qualify for the Hep C treatment. When he was corrected by the PA at LaPalma who had already sent Kenny to the gastroenterologist, who approved him for the treatment pending the esophageal study, Ivens still cancelled the test, without explanation. The final medical note on the matter feebly suggested that Kenny was suddenly NOT a good candidate for the Hep C treatment simply because it's hard to draw blood from his veins.
I happen to know there are ways around that, doc - difficulty finding a vein should not stop you from saving a man's life...
Kenny was then told that instead of curing him of the virus now, so he can live a little longer with the liver he has, the CDCR will put him on a list for a liver transplant (which prisoners don't ever move to the top of, if there is such a thing) once his fails. Now, that seems wasteful of both money and a liver that could be salvaged, all just to punish a prisoner for exercising his religious rights. This whole Kosher issue seems to be nothing but a power struggle to those people, over which Kenny is now fighting for his life as well.
Since I first started hearing from these guys, they've sent me all sorts of documentation about their struggle: illegitimate tickets they've received, CDCR Kosher food policies the prison should be following, sworn statements about racist and abusive remarks made by Trinity Food Service director Hallahan, letters about the impact of the degraded program and harassment on some prisoners' mental health, and letters to various authorities who should have intervened before it got to this point.
These guys aren't just having their food prepared and served in violation of CDCR's standards, but they're food is being sabotaged and otherwise tampered with. Attempting to resolve this throuh the grievance process has been futile, according to Kenny, because the appeals coordinator at LaPalma, Mrs. Williams, obstructs any efforts to do so by not responding to grievances, upholding clearly illegitimate disciplinary tickets, and relying on allegedly fraudulent documents. Now, with her help, some of the guys are being kicked off the Kosher meal program.
When I first posted about this, I thought we had a rogue food service director and a lazy warden, and that it was anti-semitism underlying it. But they're all complicit in covering for eachother, just because they don't want the prisoners to be found to be in the right on this. Taking it to a level whereby the CDCR is now denying Kenny life-saving medical care is beyond dirty - it's a abusive violation of his civil rights.
CCA and Trinity are evidently determined to improve their profit margins by scaling back their costs for the Kosher meals, and I doubt the CDCR is cutting back what they're paying them to serve Kosher prisoners. I think they're all banking on racism and selective punishment dividing the Jewish community at LaPalma between the Orthodox and the Messianic prisoners - the latter of whom are almost all Latino. Recent converts to the branch of Judaism that embraces both Kosher tradition and the belief that Jesus is the Messiah - Messianic Jews - have reportedly been referred to by the food service manager as "those F**king New Jews". That's a slur against Latinos in this case, not Jews, by the way.
Intrestingly, Trinity Services has a history of getting away with employing overtly racist staff, which might explain why there's been no attempt by the folks at Trinity to rein this guy Hallahan in. He's really got it in for Kenny now, other prisoners want to sue because the food is often sabotaged under his supervision, and he's made it clear that he intends to terminate the Kosher program at LaPalma, too. I really don't understand why this guy has so much power - his views must be fairly representative of their organization.
Apparently there's a huge rift in the larger community already about Messianic Jews receiving Kosher meals in prison, with some Orthodox Jewish papers expressing dismay and disgust at what they see as crass exploitation of Kosher privileges by prisoners who have no sincere faith at all, and just want to sell and trade the Kosher goodies with others.
Which isn't altogether out there: of course there will be some people, Orthodox and Messianic alike, who will exploit what good food in prison can get them. But is that justification for depriving all Messianic (or otherwise "New") Jews in prison the right to practice their faith according to their tenets? Does it give everyone else the right to question the authenticity of a prisoner's faith, too? There's already a process whereby prison chaplains and rabbis validate a prisoner's religious sincerity - and really, that should be no one else's business.
It would seem to be in the best interests of the larger Orthodox community to assure that the integrity of the Kosher meal program at LaPalma isn't compromised by greed, power trips, or racialized politics. This infringement on religious rights won't stop there - I think LaPalma is a test a site for CCA and CDCR to see if they can't get away with some lesser substitute like, say, a soy-based vegetarian menu (which is what the Trinity Global Kosher diet program is) and phase out the costly processes invovled in preparing real Kosher food.
Since when is ordinary vegetarian food a substitute for Kosher meals, anyway, Rabbi Heyman?
This whole issue was litigated in California state courts (see Garcia) under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), but the constituitonal issues were never raised in federal court. Therefore, I suspect these folks are going to make their prisoners take them to court before they comply with California law on the matter - which covers these guys at laPalma even though they're imprisoned in Arizona. And the CDCR is apparently on board with what CCA and Trinity are doing. Which is all kind of crazy in light of the DOJ intervening in the Kosher meal case in Florida this spring.
In mid-June, Kenny and a few of the guys finally got a meeting with CCA and Trinity officials to dicusss the changes in the Kosher program, which the warden had thus far responded to with memos that avoided answering the question of compliance, saying only that CCA's staff rabbi certified that the kitchen was in compliance with their own guidelines, as if that meant something. Below are the minutes of the June 19 meeting, which lay out where things are now at.
Attorneys or media who are interested in this case can reach out the prisoners directly at:
Kenneth Santiago F03822
LaPalma Correctional Center
5501 N. LaPalma Rd
Eloy, AZ 85131