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Latest budget-buster for Florida prisons: kosher meals

Florida's chronically debt-ridden prison system faces a new challenge as inmates of all religious faiths are lining up by the thousands to demand kosher meals.

U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz in Miami last month ordered the nation's third-largest prison system to offer kosher meals by July 1 to all inmates who request them. To begin to comply with the order, the Department of Corrections is offering kosher meals in pilot programs at two large prisons, Union Correctional in Raiford and the South Florida Reception Center in Miami.

Struggling to reduce a $58 million deficit, Corrections Secretary Mike Crews told a Senate panel Wednesday that the ruling is a big problem. The state pays $1.52 a day to provide three meals to its inmates (Do the math: that's 50 cents a meal). The alternative, two kosher meals, costs at least $4 a day, plus microwave ovens, boxes and other expenses.

After Seitz's order, prison officials anticipated 300 inmates to want kosher meals but 4,417 of them are on a list to get them, because they taste better than run-of-the-mill prison food that includes staples such as a "meat supplement" known as PVT.

"You're talking about a lot of money," Crews told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "I don't think we have any choice but to at least start to move to comply with the judge's order."

In consultation with Gov. Rick Scott's office, Crews said, the state will appeal Seitz's kosher-meals decision. Attorney General Pam Bondi represents the state in the appeal.

Crews made his comments as he cruised through a confirmation hearing  (he was not confirmed by the 2013 Legislature). Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, praised Crews for his no-nonsense response to trouble, such as the case of the two inmates who escaped from prisons using forged documents.

"You didn't try to pass the buck," Dean told Crews. "You never tried to shuck and jive and pass it on to somebody else."

 -- Steve Bousquet