NY prisons must now provide kosher food in commissaries and vending machines — at the standard requested by any inmate

Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein sponsored the new legislation, after finding, during his own visits to inmates, that visiting area vending machines lacked kosher food items

Credit: Matt Green

Dec 20, 2023 1:30 PM


Earlier this month, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill into law that would require New York prison commissaries and vending machines to provide kosher food items for purchase. In addition, the commissaries must provide food items at an inmate’s requested dietary standard. The new law, which also applies to halal food, requires the cost of such food options to be “comparable” to other items for sale.

Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein, who represents a largely Haredi district in Brooklyn, said that he himself has “often” visited prisons and, when trying to buy something for himself, noticed the vending machines in visiting areas lacked kosher food options. 

“There are often six or seven or eight vending machines, and not a single kosher item,” Eichensten said in an interview with the Yiddish-language telephone hotline Kol Mevaser. “And if it is kosher, it might not be cholov yisroel” or have a “heimish hechsher,” he added, referring to the stricter standards for kosher food adhered to by many Haredim.

Eichenstein, who sponsored the bill in the assembly, said that he first tried to urge correctional facilities to improve their kosher offerings without being required to do so by law. When that approach didn’t work, he realized a legislative solution was necessary.

The new bill, Eichenstein ensured, would not only require kosher options but also allow inmates to request kosher food items at their chosen standard — such as certification by a Haredi organization rather than the more mainstream Orthodox Union.

In a letter to Hochul urging her to sign the bill, Haredi leaders, including Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, expressed support for the new law, according to an article in the Satmar Hasidic Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid

“By ordering prisons to have kosher and halal products available for the prisoner population, we send a clear message that New York doesn’t discriminate against any group, and that our political leaders recognize the priorities of our diverse religious communities,” the letter said, according to the article.

Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, president of the Tzedek Association, a Haredi organization that lobbies for causes as diverse as criminal justice reform and for insurance companies to cover fertility treatments, also praised the new law.

“Thank you @GovKathyHochul for signing this important bill, honoring and protecting sacred religious rights,” Margaretten wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Prisons in New York State started offering kosher meals for inmates in the 1970s, though commissaries and vending machines weren’t previously required to carry kosher food items. The new law will go into effect on Feb. 6.