Cold meals have Alaska's Department of Corrections in hot water with two people who are currently in custody at the Anchorage Correctional Complex and the nonprofit that has filed a lawsuit on their behalf.  

The lawsuit, filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations Legal Defense Fund, claims individuals in DOC's care are not receiving adequate nutrition as they observe Ramadan. 

Ramadan is the Muslim holy month and entails fasting from dawn to sunset, which can be a particularly long period of time for those living in Alaska.  

The lawsuit points to the fact that the meals provided to Muslim inmates to break their fast are cold, while other inmates at the same facility receive hot meals and argues the Ramadan meal service provides insufficient calories in the form of meals that include pork products-- something the inmates cannot eat. 

Thursday, DOC Standards Administrator Jeremy Hough said the department currently accommodates the needs and practices of people belonging to 30 religions-- from the Church of Christ to the Church of Satan-- and that includes Islam. 

"We're giving a nutritious meal that's been approved by our dietitian," said Hough. 

He says some inmates fast from Alaska's dawn to sunset, while others choose to fast from dawn to sunset in Mecca. Regardless of the times they choose, they're given two sack lunches to break their fast, amounting to four sandwiches or wraps, four servings of fruit, and two servings each of vegetables, milk, and cake or cookies. 

According to DOC spokesperson Megan Edge, the average caloric intake of the Ramadan meals is 2,656 calories: 

  • Calories in Hummus wrap sack meal- 2430 calories
  • Calories in Peanut Butter wrap sack meal- 2964 calories
  • Calories in Turkey Bologna or Salami sandwich sack meal w/ cookies- 1936 calories
  • Calories in Turkey Bologna or Salami sandwich sack meal w/ cake- 2108 calories
  • Calories in Chicken Salad wrap sack meal w/ cookies- 3333 calories
  • Calories in Chicken Salad wrap sack meal w/ cake- 3505 calories

"We used the 3000 calorie a day diet as a target point for our regular menu.  Our average daily caloric intake for our regular diet is 2792.  2691 is our lowest weekly menu daily average and 2956 is our highest weekly menu daily average," Edge wrote in an email. 

Both Edge and Hough say there are no pork products in the Ramadan meals, and the bologna inside the sandwiches, which the lawsuit argues contains pork, is actually turkey bologna. 

Hough called the sack lunch effort at the Anchorage Jail "the bare minimum" they offer, as its population is mainly pretrial inmates and changes frequently. He says at facilities housing more long-term inmates, a hot meal is provided in the evening as well as for scheduled prayer services. 

Providing meals to accommodate fasting during Ramadan is required under a law that requires the DOC to let individuals in their custody exercise their constitutional right to practice the religion of their choice. Hough says that same law allows the DOC to require inmates prove their sincerity, but the DOC doesn't enforce that requirement. 

According to Edge, there are currently 10 people signed up for the Ramadan meal service at the Anchorage Jail, and Hough says not all of them are Muslim-- but anyone who wants to can participate. 

Religious literature and items like prayer beads, prayer rugs, and head coverings are also allowed inside DOC facilities, but Hough says they draw a line at requests that could jeopardize the safety of others. 

"For example, we're not gonna let you have a ceremonial dagger or something like that in there to practice your religion with," he said. 

When asked about the public comments retorting the lawsuit, saying things like, ‘This is jail—it’s not a five-star hotel.’ ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have committed a crime,’ House said, "I would say that, you know, a lot of these folks are gonna be out and they're gonna be your neighbors and don't you want to provide them with the best opportunity to succeed? And one of those ways would be helping promote their spiritual growth through accommodating these requests." 

The State Department of Law has declined to answer questions specific to the lawsuit, saying it cannot comment on matters that are in active litigation. 

Questions or comments about this story? Email reporter Daniella Rivera.

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