DES MOINES, Iowa (USA TODAY) — An Iowa inmate has won a lawsuit against the state because he was served food prepared in pots and pans that had previously touched meats and other ingredients — a violation of that inmate's religious rights, a judge has ruled.
As a result, the Iowa Department of Corrections agreed to give the prisoner access to foods that are prepackaged and free from contact with utensils that might have touched the culinary ingredients he maintains are against his religion.
The lawsuit will cost taxpayers $12,000 to cover the prisoner's legal fees, according to a settlement approved last week by the Iowa Appeal Board.
The inmate, Mahendrakumar Patel, 46, has practiced Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan — sometimes known as BAPS — since birth. The religion is a sect of Hinduism, and its followers believe no animal should die for a meal.
Eggs, for example, are forbidden because they have the potential for life, Patel testified in court.
Patel staged as many as 10 separate hunger strikes as he objected to food prepared in pots or pans or with utensils that had previously touched meats, eggs or dishes that contain mayonnaise, onions and garlic, court records show.
Those hunger strikes resulted in Patel going at least 236 days without eating over six years. The inmate's weight fell from 188 pounds in 2006 to 114 pounds in 2012, an exhibit presented at a trial last year showed.
"We have tried to make accommodations with him, but it seems that every time that we've reached one accommodation then there would be another objection on his part," Greg Ort, the former warden of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, said in court testimony last year. "We seem to be unable to reach a satisfaction with him."
Patel acknowledged various attempts from prison staff to provide him with meals that met his religious beliefs. In some cases, those efforts ultimately ended with Patel discovering the food was potentially contaminated. Other times, the prison halted practices that were previously acceptable in order to accommodate Patel's new requests, the inmate said.
"There is stuff I cannot eat, so I complain about it but they said, 'That's all you're going to get,' " Patel testified in court.
Patel, a native of India, was sentenced in 2006 to 25 years in prison for stalking and attempting to kill his girlfriend in Des Moines, court records show. He maintains his innocence.
The Des Moines Register was unable to reach Patel through a request made to prison officials last week. His attorney, Patrick Ingram of Iowa City, criticized state officials for failing to take the inmate's dietary requests seriously.
Ingram, who has previously represented prisoners with special diets for religious reasons, said the prison system has a pattern of denying or disbelieving the legitimacy of a prisoner's requests.
"The Department of Corrections always believes they're pulling something on them," Ingram said. "Diet is the issue that pops up most frequently."
Patel said he once was unable to leave his cell for five days as punishment because he refused to eat the food that was given to him.
Prison officials said they researched Patel's religion and contacted several Hindu experts after Patel made his initial dietary request. Hindu leader Budendranauth Doobay of Canada told Iowa officials that one of the prison's practices — using stainless steel utensils that were sanitized between each use — was adequate, Ort testified.
In order to satisfy Patel's religious beliefs, the prison could have provided him with prepackaged foods — something it is now doing. But Ort, the former warden, testified during the 2012 trial that doing so "would go to setting a practice that others would want to take advantage of also."
The Coralville prison has about 950 inmates and serves about 3,300 meals a day to both staff and offenders.
Prepackaged foods are more expensive, Ort said.
"We're only obligated to supply what is a balanced diet, so to go into providing more is setting a precedent that could lead us into difficult territory," Ort testified.
Despite Ort's testimony, William Hill, an attorney for the state, and Fred Scaletta, a spokesman for Iowa's corrections department, said they are not now concerned that U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Ross Walters' ruling could lead to a large number of prisoners making similar requests.
Ross specifically ruled that the state's actions were a violation of Patel's rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that prohibits governments from placing burdens on the ability of prisoners to worship.
Part of what a court looks at when reviewing prisoner dietary lawsuits is whether there is a component of sincerity. An inmate who has started his own religion while incarcerated, for example, is far less likely to be successful than another who can demonstrate a lifelong dietary practice associated with his religion, Hill noted.
Complaints or lawsuits from prisoners about their behind-bars diet are not unique across the nation.
Michigan's corrections department, for example, last year made a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union to accommodate diets of Muslim prisoners; a federal judge last year dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Colorado prisoner who said his membership in the Ever Increasing Faith religion prohibited him from eating meat; and, in February, a federal court ruling required Florida to provide Jewish inmates with kosher diets.