How do Correctional Facilities Address the Rights of Inmates with Religious or Allergy Restricted Diets?

How do correctional staff manage meals for those who have food allergies or religious needs? Do inmates receive special treatment? Are inmates provided nutritious meals? How does staff ensure these nutritional needs are met?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Barbara Wakeen, MA, RDN, LD, CD, CCFP, CCHP | Correctional Nutrition Consultant, Ltd.

If you’ve watched Orange is the New Black, you’d know that in Season 3 there are a group of general population inmates who are jealous of those who are served Kosher, and some of the jealous inmates go as far as to fabricate or misrepresent their religion to get the meal that looks the most appealing to them. Unfortunately, this happens outside of fictional TV-shows. This is a real battle that correctional facilities face in real-life, too. Due to the number of inmates who aren’t honest about their religion or allergies, it’s a balancing act confirming who receives what meals. Below we are discussing how to walk the fine line (legally) of providing the right food to the right individuals, and how to unmask deceitfulness.

Beggars Can’t Be Choosers

In Hollywood movies, the meals that are served to inmates look almost non-edible. Have you wondered if that’s what the jail grub is like in real life? Well, it’s not as gruesome as the movies make it out to be, but it’s still not a 5-star meal.  Although most meals look like premade TV type dinners, they contain adequate nutrients, protein, vitamins, and are appropriately temperature controlled. But unfortunately for the inmates, they don’t have the luxury choosing the food they’re served. They are all served the same portions, which are standardized for every meal. If an inmate is still hungry after their serving, they’re out of luck. They will not be given more than what they were originally served. To eliminate inmates from getting seconds, most facilities now have ID card scanners to ensure that each prisoner only eats once. If you are caught sneaking back into line again after being served, you risk being written up.

How does Staff Maneuver Meals for those with Religious Needs?

The U.S. Constitution protects inmates from infringement on their practice of religion. Therefore, facilities are obligated to accommodate requests for special diets for inmates when necessary to meet their religious beliefs. There are programs in place to help facilities and governing agencies handle how they address inmate diets. But before these programs are implemented, facilities have the right to make inquiries to verify the authenticity of the inmate's request.

Traditionally, supervisors, clinicians, or religious authorities are responsible to review the sincerity of the inmates' claim and make the approval decision. In most cases, if the inmate is making an earnest attempt to adhere to their religious belief, certain accommodations will be made but can be denied if the inmate demonstrates that they do not have a sincere belief in the requested religion. 

There are multiple religions that create dietary hurdles, so it’s a best practice for facilities to provide Kosher, Halal, or meat-free alternatives that can be offered to inmates who practice or belong to Judaism, Muslim, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Church of Latter-Day Saints, or Seventh Day Adventists. Thankfully, many facilities utilize a dietician from their food service or vendor that can certify alternative options that meet the requirements of multiple religions and meet the same dietary requirements as the standard tray the general population receives. 

What about Inmates with Allergies?

Of course, jails and prisons don’t want an inmate with a legitimate allergy to be served food that will cause an allergic reaction. But there are always going to be those inmates that claim to have a food allergy to avoid the food they don’t like. How can you accurately identify the inmates who are truly allergic vs. the inmates you claim to be allergic? 

Allergy testing is expensive and is usually avoided since they are easier routes to find the truth of the claim. Medical staff can access records to review the inmate’s history and ask a series of questions regarding reactions. They can also access the inmate’s commissary orders to see if they purchase products with said allergens. Luckily, it’s somewhat easy to find out if an inmate is truthful about their allergy claim as almost all individuals who have anaphylaxis, have had previous anaphylactic reactions, which can be verified by their medical history. Individuals with a credible history of food allergy should be referred to see a medical practitioner to confirm who has treated the inmate for the allergy, what testing has been done, how many anaphylaxis-related emergency visits occurred, and any Epi-pen prescriptions (Keller, 2019). Ultimately, Practitioners are recommended to use their clinical judgement for these patients and decide if further tests need to be run to prove the claim.

How to Keep the Peace Amongst Everyone

We’ve discussed why inmates choose to be dishonest about their religion and how to weed them out, but another popular policy that many facilities have implemented only allows inmates to change their religions a certain number of times a year and must be following a religion for a significant amount of time before a holiday. This way, inmates can’t decide to follow a new religion right before a specific holiday approaches. For example, followers of Ramadan fast from dawn to dusk and therefore require meals outside of normal kitchen hours. With a policy that enforces inmates to follow a religion for a significant amount of time, inmates can’t decide the day before Ramadan that they are suddenly Muslim because they want to eat outside of normal kitchen hours. 

It’s not cheap to have alternative options. Non-specialty inmate meals can range between $3-$4 per inmate per day. Specialty meals, such as Kosher meals, can be around $5 a pop. Fortunately there are programs available to help purchase these more-expensive special diet meals in bulk, averaging to be around $3 per meal. But, because they were ordered in bulk, those who eat the special diet meals eat the exact same food for every meal every day. To offset the cost of accommodating special meals, some facilities spend less money on fruits and vegetables as long as they don’t violate religious requirements and can still sufficiently provide a nutritional diet. Since the food served to the standard general population is slightly different than the food served to those with allergies or religious needs, it’s a best practice to keep the meals as similar as possible to eliminate jealousy and brawls.

Hopefully these tips can help your facility in its balancing act of confirming which inmates are telling the truth about their allergy or religion and which inmates’ falsifications will be unmasked with these work-around techniques.


Barbara Wakeen, MA, RDN, LD, CD, CCFP, CCHP | Correctional Nutrition Consultant, Ltd.

Keller, Jeff (2019). Sample food allergy guideline for correctional facilities

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