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Ronald Chase v. City of Philadelphia and Prison Health Services

July 12, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Norma L. Shapiro, J.


On January 21, 2011, plaintiff Ronald Chase, a pretrial detainee in the Philadelphia Prison System ("PPS"), filed a pro se complaint. Plaintiff alleged: (1) overcrowded prison conditions, including triple celling; (2) inadequate medical care by Prison Health Services, Inc.; and (3) denial of Kosher meals in violation of his "religious right to meals as a Muslim." Pl.'s Compl. (paper no. 3), Attached Statement of Facts, ¶ 7. Plaintiff's action was subsequently consolidated with Civil Action No. 11-3711, In re: Prison Overcrowding Cases. Gerald J. Williams, Esq. was appointed plaintiff's counsel and given leave to file an amended complaint.

On June 2, 2011, plaintiff wrote a letter to the court; the court received the letter on June 21, 2011. The letter stated that PPS has refused to serve Kosher meals to plaintiff, despite his requests for Kosher food for his "religious/medical diet." Pl.'s June 2, 2011 Letter at 2 (paper no. 11). The letter stated plaintiff was on a hunger strike and had lost forty-five pounds, and requested a temporary restraining order ("TRO") under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65 to remedy the denial of Kosher meals.

The court held a hearing on plaintiff's request for a TRO on June 28, 2011. Counsel for plaintiff*fn1 and the City of Philadelphia ("City") each presented witnesses. At the hearing's conclusion, the court denied plaintiff's request for a temporary restraining order.

I. Testimony at the June 28, 2011 Hearing

A. Plaintiff Ronald Chase

Plaintiff testified he requested Kosher meals because he is Jewish, contrary to statements in his complaint that he was Muslim. See Pl.'s Compl. (paper no. 3), Attached Statement of Facts, ¶ 7. Plaintiff testified that his parents raised him as Jewish, and eating Kosher food is important to him because it is the food he grew up eating. When plaintiff has not been incarcerated, he testified that he maintains a Kosher diet. On cross-examination, counsel for the City asked plaintiff what religious purpose is served by eating Kosher food; plaintiff stated that Jewish people eat Kosher food for its historical significance. When the court asked plaintiff what makes certain foods Kosher, he stated, "the preparation," but was unable to provide further explanation. When probed further on cross-examination about the Kosher preparation of meat, plaintiff stated that meat is prepared Kosher when it comes from a certain part of the animal and when it is without fat.

In addition to eating Kosher food, plaintiff testified that he had practiced the Jewish religion by attending, when not incarcerated, synagogues in Providence, Rhode Island and Smyrna, Georgia, although he could not remember the names of the synagogues nor the rabbis. He stated he observes the Jewish holidays of Hannukah, Passover, and Yom Kippur. When the court asked how he observes the holidays, he was unable to provide detail; instead, he stated he is studying the Jewish religion and is beginning to learn how to observe the holidays.

According to plaintiff, he first requested a Kosher diet in May, 2010, but the prison chaplain determined he was not entitled to Kosher meals because he did not hold a sincere religious belief requiring him to eat Kosher food. Plaintiff also testified that the chaplain told him he could not be Jewish because he is African-American, so he must be a Hebrew-Israelite instead.*fn2

Plaintiff claims that a federal court had previously ordered a prison to provide him with Kosher meals. He testified that when he was previously incarcerated in a Rhode Island state institution, he filed a lawsuit challenging the prison's denial of Kosher food, and the Honorable Raymond J. Pettine, U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, entered a consent decree ordering that plaintiff must receive Kosher meals. The court asked if plaintiff or counsel were able to provide documents from the Rhode Island case, but no documents were provided, so the court does not have a copy of any consent decree. However, the court has found court opinions discussing plaintiff's motions to enforce the consent decree; these opinions describe the consent decree as pertaining to "law library services and access thereto." Chase v. Gardner, No. 98-002, 1998 WL 939527, at *1 (D.R.I Dec. 21, 1998); see also Chase v. Cudworth, No. 00-217, 2000 WL 1787638, at *1 (D.R.I. Oct. 17, 2008) (stating that paragraph sixteen of the consent decree provides for additional time in the law library for prison inmates). The court also found Chase v. Quick, 596 F. Supp. 33 (D.R.I. 1984), in which then-District Judge Selya dismissed plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim. Plaintiff's complaint had alleged he was Muslim and criticized the prison for not complying with the special diet required by his religion: "The Muslim meals are not to consist of pork but my tray and other Muslims have received pork." Id. at 34.

Plaintiff's letter to the court, requesting a TRO, states that he began a hunger strike on June 2, 2011. Plaintiff informed the court that he ended his hunger strike when he received notice of the TRO hearing, so he would be nourished and able to speak in court.

B. Chaplain Phillis Taylor

Phillis Taylor is not an ordained minister, imam, or rabbi, but she has served as chaplain at the PPS for ten years. Part of her job is to determine whether inmates are entitled to special diets for religious reasons. Chaplain Taylor offered testimony on behalf of the City to explain her decision to deny plaintiff's request for a Kosher diet.

To decide if an inmate may receive a special diet for religious reasons, Chaplain Taylor must ascertain the inmate's religion. She receives this information in one of two ways: (1) from a list, prepared by prison officials, that is ordered by inmates' religions; or (2) from an inmate's requests to staff for religious services. Upon identifying a Jewish inmate, Chaplain Taylor visits the inmate to provide literature, support, prayers, and if requested, a Kosher diet. To determine if an inmate may receive a Kosher diet, Chaplain Taylor considers: (1) how much the inmate knows about why certain adherents to the Jewish religion eat only Kosher food; (2) the inmate's religious practices before and during custody; and (3) the statements of any references provided by the inmate about the inmate's religious beliefs or practices. Because inmates believe that the ...

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