Aviva Orenstein

Document Type



“Once we were slaves, now we are free” is a central line from the Jewish Passover Seder, a ritual meal in which participants retell the story of liberation from Pharaoh’s oppression. In prison, many Jewish inmates request access to a Seder and to kosher-for-Passover food for the eight-day holiday. Prisoners’ requests to celebrate Passover provide a rich example for exploring the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA), and raise a host of tough questions regarding cost, safety, equal treatment of prisoners, and establishment of religion. Because kosher-for-Passover meals are more expensive and generally of higher quality than regular prison fare, the prison must decide who is genuinely eligible, and who is merely seeking better food. In deciding which prisoners are sincere, administrators tend to adopt rigid standards for what constitutes appropriate religious observance and sometimes fail to credit prisoners’ individual beliefs. Beyond the formal legal issues of prisoners’ rights and administrative protocol lies the deeply personal and symbolic meaning that the Passover Seder has for those who are incarcerated. The irony of their situation – celebrating a ritual of freedom inside prison – is not lost on inmates who seek spiritual freedom even – and especially – in prison.