Two jail inmates are suing Pennington County because they say they are being denied specialty meals to meet their religious requirements. 

An inmate and former inmate are seeking $2 million in combined damages while arguing that their right to religious freedom was violated after they were denied religious diets at the Pennington County Jail, according to federal lawsuits they filed on their own behalf. 

"I was denied my right to practice my religion," said Tristan Pope, who said he is Muslim and wanted a kosher diet. It's unclear why Pope asked for a kosher rather than halal diet.

Samuel Swiftbird, who said he practices Islam and studies the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book, raised a similar argument in his lawsuit.

"Both the fact that I was denied my religious diet request by Captain Brooke Haga, and the fact that I was not able to speak with a chaplain who was either Jewish or Islamic, but who is Methodist by faith, are both against my legal rights according to the first amendment," he wrote.

Jail Commander Rob Yantis said he's not aware of the complaints and would not comment on them or any other pending lawsuit against the facility. 

But how does the county jail decide who qualifies for special diets due to their religion? Yantis said it's a subjective process that must balance an individual's right to religious freedom under the First Amendment with safety and financial concerns. 

"There's no magic formula to try to determine," who qualifies, he said. "We're trying to determine whether somebody is sincere about that 'this is my faith and this is what I believe my faith requires of me.'"

Of the hundreds of people at the jail, Yantis said, eight are now approved for religious diets. 

The issue of deciding who qualifies for religious diets in jails and prisons and the popularity of kosher meals, even among Muslims and other non-Jews, has been discussed in the New York Times, and Tablet, a Jewish magazine. The topic was even poked fun at in an episode of "Orange is the New Black", a Netflix series inspired by a woman's stay in a federal prison. 

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Yantis said the Pennington County Jail tries to make sure its mainstream meals are of equal quality to kosher and halal ones so inmates don't request the specialty meals just because they think they will taste better. A registered nutritionist makes sure all meals are balanced and healthy, he said.

Inmates request specialty meals through an electronic kiosk, he said. "If our jail chaplain is available, we utilize the chaplain to help us determine whether they're really requesting for a religious purpose or not."

Jail leadership may also consult with the jail's multi-faith religious advisory group, but they don't have a legal obligation to consult with anyone and the decision is ultimately up to them, Yantis said. He said the chaplain is a volunteer whose presence isn't required by law. 

"It's something we think is better for the facility and makes the facility better," he said of why the jail chooses to have a chaplain. 

Inmates approved for religious diets receive daily meals that fit their religion, and are accommodated during certain holidays, Yantis said. For example, Catholics who follow Lent will not be given meat on Fridays during the holiday. Muslims who fast during Ramadan will be served meals before sunset and just after sundown. Jews who celebrate Passover are given non-leavened food and specially cleaned or new utensils and vessels.

Sometimes inmates who want vegetarian food will request a religious diet they think is vegetarian, even if they don't belong to the faith group, Yantis said. Vegetarian and vegan meals are not available at the jail. One person, he said, requested specific utensils related to Odinism, a contemporary pagan religion. 

Any diet that could be dangerous or that would have an extremely high price would not be allowed. 

Once someone is approved for a religious diet, they could have the privilege taken away after a warning if they refuse to eat the meals, trade food, or buy items in the commissary that are not considered part of the diet. 

"We uphold the constitution and people's constitutional rights as much as possible in an institution," Yantis said. "There's a lot of federal code that governs what we do," such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects prisoners' freedom of religion. 

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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