COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A decision by Ohio officials to remove all pork products from prison menus in response to a lawsuit by Muslim inmates is not sitting well with the state's pork producers and processors.
Both promise action of their own, including a possible counter lawsuit, to address what they consider an unfair and illogical decision.
"We really think it's not in the best interest, frankly, of the whole prison system," said Dick Isler, executive director of the Ohio Pork Producers Council. "It seems like we're letting a small group make the rules when it really isn't in the best interest of the rest of prisoners."
Pork is inexpensive and nutritious and compares well with other lean meats, he said.
Ironically, the inmates' lawsuit doesn't involve pork at all; it demands that non-pork meats like beef come from animals slaughtered according to Islamic law. But the prisons system responded by simply removing pork as an option altogether.
Assistant prisons director Steven Huffman has spoken with Isler, but the system isn't changing its mind, spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said Wednesday.
She said she couldn't comment on the lawsuit specifically, but said removing pork assures that inmates' religious practices aren't jeopardized by pork coming into contact with other food during preparation.
The prison system first took pork off the menu in 2009 after, in a money-saving attempt, it closed the pig farm and processing facility it operated to provide meat for inmates.
Last year, after lobbying by pork producers, the system added pork rib patties back to the menu twice a month.
The prison system couldn't immediately say Wednesday how much it spent on pork. But Kristin Mullins, who lobbies for Ohio pork processors, said the move last year actually saved Ohio money because pork was less expensive at the time than other meats.
"Let's service the entire prison population and not let one portion dictate what's being served," said Mullins, who also represents processors in Kentucky and Tennessee.
In a federal lawsuit, death row inmate Abdul Awkal complains that the state is restraining his religious freedoms by not providing meals prepared according to Islamic law, known as halal, while at the same time supplying Jewish prisoners with kosher meals.
Awkal, joined by a second inmate not on death row, says the vegetarian and non-pork options aren't good enough. The inmates say food must be prepared in specific fashion, such as ensuring that an animal is butchered by slitting its throat and draining its blood, to conform to Islamic beliefs.
Prison guidelines for Muslim inmates already provided that meals will be "free of all pork and products containing or derived from pork."
As a result, the decision to remove pork from menus won't affect the lawsuit, which will continue, said David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, which is suing on behalf of the two inmates.
A judge has given lawyers and inmates for the state until next month to finish filing documents bolstering their arguments, ahead of an expected January trial.
Ohio says requiring halal meals could mean new dietary plans for as many as 2,000 inmates, while Awkal's lawyers believe the figure is lower because not all Muslims eat halal meals.
Awkal, 52, is scheduled to die in June for killing his estranged wife, Latife Awkal, and brother-in-law Mahmoud Abdul-Aziz in 1992, in a room in Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court. Joining Awkal in the lawsuit is Cornelius Causey, 35, serving 15 years to life for murder and aggravated robbery convictions out of Hamilton County.
In court documents, Ohio has argued that it provides both non-pork and vegetarian meals to Muslims and says the courts have sided with this practice. The state also says that providing halal meals could hurt Ohio financially, given the current budget situation.
It's unclear if any other state prison system has made a similar move. California provides packaged kosher meals to Jewish inmates and halal meals prepared at prisons for Muslim prisoners, as well as including pork on the regular menu.
Muslim inmates in Texas can select regular, meat-free or pork-free meals but are not served halal meals.