An inmate on death row at the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut, has filed a hand-written lawsuit against the state claiming that that his right to practice freedom of religion is being violated — suddenly, after six years of incarceration.
Steven Hayes, 51, is claiming in his suit against the Connecticut State Department of Corrections that he is a practicing Orthodox Jew and is being denied kosher food, which he says he has requested since May 2013. (Hayes said he previously practiced Taoism, according to the Raw Story website.)
His Jewish status, however, seems to be rooted solely in his own belief; Hayes describes himself as a “self-converted Jew” and there are no claims of having a Jewish mother nor any documentation of any conversion according to Jewish law, which would mandate the necessity for him to receive kosher food. His knowledge of conversion apparently stems from discussions he had with a previous prison rabbi in the 1990s.
As is explained by the Jewish Prisoner Services International organization: “A Jew is one who has either been born Jewish or has been properly converted. One cannot become a Jew by simply declaring that he/she is Jewish, or by beginning to practice the Jewish faith.”
Regardless, Hayes says in his lawsuit, “This continuous denial of a kosher diet is a clear violation of my First Amendment right to freely practice my religion of choice, Judaism.” He also charges the Department with cruel and unusual punishment because he is forced to eat non-kosher food in order to survive. Hayes claims he has lost weight due to this issue, which prevents him from eating properly, according to reports published in the Hartford Courant and New Haven Register newspapers.
The inmate was convicted in 2010 for invading a home in Cheshire in 2007, where he assaulted and strangled a mother to death. He also attacked and murdered her two daughters, ages 11 and 17, tying them to their beds and then leaving them there while setting the house on fire. The children’s father, the lone survivor of the attack, was severely beaten but managed to escape. (Another man was involved in the crime as well.)
The prison kitchen has no strictly kosher certification, Hayes says in his lawsuit, and so he has asked for pre-packaged kosher food. Instead, he claimed, the kitchen staff told him the food served at the prison is “kosher-like.” But in his lawsuit, Hayes responded that “kosher-like is not kosher,” the Courant reported.
According to a separate report by the New Haven Register, Hayes has been consulting with and speaking with a prison rabbi. He has also asked for more time with the rabbi, the paper reported.
In addition, he has asked for $15,000 in punitive and compensatory damages for “intentional infliction of pain, suffering and resulting weight loss from the deliberate denial of a kosher diet.” Hayes also wants a trial by a judge. And a court order forcing the Department of Corrections to make sure pre-packaged kosher meals are provided to him – and to every other Jewish prisoner in the Connecticut penal system.
The attorney for Hayes, public defender Thomas Ullmann, says he is “happy he is finding some spiritual solace.” He adds, “This is what being on death row does. People are sitting in their cells, not doing anything, so filing federal lawsuits is the kind of thing that happens.”
The Department’s acting director of external affairs, Karen Martucci, says the lawsuit was referred to the Attorney General. A spokesperson from the A-G’s office, Jaclyn Falkowski, said in response to a query, “We are reviewing the complaint and will respond at the appropriate time in court.”
At least he’s not asking for a raise in his monthly salary. In fact, he may not even have a monthly salary. After all, he hasn’t had any tutoring from the Palestinian Authority terrorists sitting in Israeli prisons.Rachel Levy