COLUMBUS, Ohio – A death row inmate says the Ohio prison system is denying him meals prepared according to Islamic law -- known as halal -- while at the same time providing kosher meals to Jewish prisoners, according to a federal lawsuit that alleges a civil rights violation.
Condemned inmate Abdul Awkal says the prison system's failure to provide the halal meals is a restraint on his religious freedoms.
Awkal, joined by a second inmate not on death row, says the vegetarian and non-pork options offered by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction aren't good enough. The inmates say the food must be prepared in specific fashion, such as ensuring that an animal is butchered by slitting its throat and draining its blood, to conform with Islamic beliefs.
"The issue of eating Halal meals is especially important to me because I face a death sentence," Awkal said in a filing in federal court earlier this year. "It is important to me that I follow the requirements of my faith as I approach death."
A judge has given lawyers and inmates for the state until next month to finish filing documents bolstering their arguments, ahead of an expected January trial.
Awkal, 52, is scheduled to die in June for killing his estranged wife, Latife Awkal, and brother-in-law Mahmoud Abdul-Aziz in 1992, in a room in Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court.
Joining Awkal in the lawsuit is Cornelius Causey, 35, serving 15 years to life for murder and aggravated robbery convictions out of Hamilton County.
Ohio argues that it provides both non-pork and vegetarian meals to Muslims and says the courts have sided with this practice. The state also says that providing halal meals could hurt Ohio financially, given the current budget situation.
"The complete restructuring of ODRC's food service administration and preparation, at a cost of millions to the State of Ohio during fiscal crisis, is at stake," Ryan Dolan, an assistant attorney general, argued in a court filing.
Ohio included in its response to the lawsuit a document from a Muslim who does regular spiritual counseling of Muslim inmates.
While Imam Sunni-Ali Islam said he thought it was problematic that Ohio provided kosher but not halal meals, he said he doesn't think it rises to the level of religious discrimination.
The state's prison guidelines for Jewish prisoners say, "The Department will accommodate kosher dietary restrictions to recognized Jewish inmates."
For Muslim inmates, prison rules say, "The diet will be free of all pork and products containing or derived from pork. The institution will provide nutritionally adequate meat and non-meat alternatives."
Ohio prison officials declined to comment beyond documents filed in support of the state position.
California provides packaged kosher meals to Jewish inmates and halal meals prepared at prisons for Muslim prisoners. Meats used for the halal meals are cooked separately from other prison food, said spokesman Paul Herke.
The state serves about 4,100 halal meals a day at a cost of about $3.50 per day, compared with about $2.90 a day for regular prison meals.
"We would consider that a pretty nominal difference," Herke said.
Arizona provides vegetarian and other options to satisfy the halal requirement but does not provide meals specifically dubbed halal.
Similarly, Muslim inmates in Texas can select regular, meat-free or pork-free meals but are not served halal meals. Massachusetts serves both kosher and halal meals.
Ohio says requiring halal meals could mean new dietary plans for as many as 2,000 inmates, while Awkal's lawyers believe the figure is lower because not all Muslims eat halal meals.