“The fact that this man is given this kind of preference shows the double standard in the criminal justice system, and in the detention system,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, an iconic civil rights activist and founder of the National Action Network.
His attorneys have argued in court documents that he requires an organic diet because of his faith of Shamanism, an ideology that is “centered on the belief in supernatural phenomenon such as the world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits.”
DC District Court Judge Royce Lamberth decided the accommodations could be made for Chansley because he had been fed organic food in detention in Arizona, and arguments about his adherence to Shamanism were enough to also convince the judge.
“There is no doubt that Shamanism is a religion and that defendant requests a dietary accommodation based on that religion, Lamberth wrote explaining his decision.
The Department of Corrections didn’t dispute that Shamanism is a religion.
The judge also explained that the “defendant’s willingness to go without food for more than a week is strong evidence of his sincerity in his religious beliefs.”
Sharpton, who has been arrested and in the custody of state and federal facilities more than 30 times after protesting injustices, said some prisons may respect an inmate’s request especially if its a religious-based diet. But “sometimes that’s not likely.”
“In the state jails, you eat what they give you or you starve … it is absolute punishment and punitive beyond the regardless for human rights and dignity,” Sharpton said. “In federal, they have different protocols, and they ask if you have any dietary or religious preferences.”
A look into federal prison food
But if convicted and sentenced, Chansley, who is a federal defendant, will likely be transferred to a BOP facility.
Inmates in federal custody are given a variety of breakfast items, including hot oatmeal, bread, jelly and fruit, according to a copy of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP)’s 2020 national menu, which was shared with CNN. For lunch and dinner, there’s a rotating five-week menu that includes beef or soy tacos, tuna salad or hummus and pepper steak or lentils, the menu says.
Justin Long, a spokesman with the BOP, said fresh fruit and vegetables are served daily, and “inmates have the option to select from a regular, heart healthy, or no flesh entree for every meal, including vegan-friendly options.”
“The quality of the food served to our inmate population is a priority of the Bureau of Prisons,” Long said. He couldn’t confirm whether the food served in BOP facilities is organic.
“Contractors that are selected and paid by the government to supply food to inmates are expected to comply with contractual and other standards,” said Kenneth R. Dieffenbach, Special Agent in Charge of the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General Fraud Detection Office.
“When they provide adulterated products, as the defendants allegedly did here, the government is cheated and the health and safety of inmates are placed at risk.”
Black and brown people are served ‘terrible food’ daily, advocates say
Leslie Soble, a research fellow at Impact Justice, a non-profit that advocates for criminal justice reform, said that feeding organic food to detainees at US correctional facilities is “completely unheard of.”
“Chansley is a glaring example of White privilege and racial injustice,” she said, referring to his ability to get such food and also move facilities to do so.
The report, based on responses from nearly 500 formerly incarcerated people and family members, found that in many instances, the food served is not safe, is not appealing and has a low nutritional value.
“Someone told us that the only time that they would get chocolate milk was when the milk was spoiled,” Soble, who has done extensive research on food served in prison, said.
While most facilities require that meals include vegetables and fruits, Soble says, what is being served ranges from a spoonful of applesauce, chunks of canned fruits, and canned green beans. In most states, Soble estimates that prisons spend between $2.50 to $3 per person in meals per day.
When asked about the food served at the Alexandria jail, a spokesman for Aramark told CNN that all correctional facility menus are designed by “registered dietitians to meet the nutritional requirements” specified by each individual facility and the guidelines set by the American Correctional Association.
Sharpton said he believes that there should be a federal law to address the nutriment of inmates since not all people in jail are convicted of a crime.
Some just can’t post bail yet, he said, and “they are treated as less than human there’s no consideration for their health. There’s no consideration for their dietary preferences.”
“It should be a law in the United States that we do not incarcerate people and force them to eat food to survive on sustenance that is provided by the state that is contrary to whatever their health needs, religious needs or dietary preferences are,” he said.
Soble has seen how the decision to grant Chansley’s request for organic food has drawn criticism, and hopes it leads to more people questioning why having poor quality prison food has become a norm.
“Why is it acceptable to use food as punishment for people who are incarcerated?” Soble said.