Following intervention by state Attorney General John Suthers, Colorado's prison officials have rewritten a policy that allowed a Jewish inmate's religious meals to be taken away as a punishment.
But the effort hasn't halted the religious freedom lawsuit that sparked the changes.
On Oct. 11, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed suit on behalf of Timothy Sheline, a 55-year-old Orthodox Jew serving a sentence at Trinidad Correctional Facility.
Sheline allegedly had lost 30 pounds since April, when his kosher meals were eliminated for a year. A guard had accused Sheline of pocketing butter and salad dressing from his tray -- a violation of dining hall rules.
The suit claims the prisoner survived for six months on the few kosher foods he was able to afford in the prison's canteen -- mainly peanut butter and crackers.
Prison officials restored Sheline's meals the day after the suit was filed. And last week, they eliminated the section in their regulations that allowed Sheline's meals to be discontinued, says Kristen Hubbell, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
"Some of this is a very good first step," says Mark Silverstein, the ACLU's legal director.
However, Silverstein notes that a new policy, obtained by the Independent through prison officials, would allow religious diets to be eliminated for up to a year if an inmate merely purchased or possessed food inconsistent with his or her religious diet.
That rule appears as problematic as the one used to punish Sheline, Silverstein says. Having food inconsistent with one's religious diet -- or even eating such food -- doesn't necessarily mean an inmate has abandoned his or her sincerely held faith, he explains.
In an earlier investigation, the Independent found that between 2002 and mid-2004, Colorado prisons received more than 1,000 complaints from inmates stating that prison officials had denied them items of worship or meals, or prevented religious gatherings. (The report, "Barred from faith," appeared in the Dec. 9, 2004 issue and can be read online at csindy.com.)
-- Michael de Yoanna