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Sunday, December 30,2012

Jewish inmate sues Hocking Correctional over religion

By Jim Phillips

A Summit County man has sued the warden and other employees of Nelsonville's Hocking Correctional Facility in federal court, claiming among other allegations that the prison has not accommodated his Jewish religious faith, and that he has been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse.

Inmate Henry L. Stepler claims in his lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court last week, that he "has been subjected to repeated violations of his religious practices"; that he has been "verbally abused," including anti-Semitic remarks; that he has been denied kosher meals; and that prison officials have failed to remedy the situation after he complained about it.

He also claims that Jewish inmates are not given a room to pray in each week as inmates with other religious beliefs are, and that materials are not provided them for religious observations.

Online records of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction show that Stepler, 54, is serving a 10-year sentence for gross sexual imposition, importuning, and intimidating a victim, witness or attorney. He is due to be released in January 2014.

DRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith declined to comment Friday on the pending litigation, but said that use of anti-Semitic abuse against an inmate would not be allowable for prison employees.

She noted that the DRC does have rules in place regarding accommodations for inmate religious beliefs.

"We have a policy about making (religious) services accommodations, and it does allow access specifically to Jewish religious services," Smith noted.

The agency's website includes policies for religious accommodations for faiths including Protestant Christian, Jehovah's Witness, Jewish, Buddhist, Wiccan, Asatru, Roman Catholic, Muslim and Native American.

The policy allows inmates to "subscribe to any religious belief they choose," and to engage in religious practices "subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions," which take into account "security, safety, health, discipline, rehabilitation, order, and the limitations and allocation of resources."

The specifically Jewish policy includes guidelines on individual prayer, observance of holy days and dietary requirements, and states that the DRC "will accommodate kosher dietary restrictions to recognized Jewish inmates."

It includes a list of recognized holidays, holy scriptures, religious properties such as yarmulkes and prayer shawls, as well as allowing for deviation from the inmate grooming code to allow, for example, Orthodox Jews to not cut their beards.

In the section of the complaint form in which Stepler is supposed to list what he wants the federal court to do for him, he seems to indicate that he wants the prison to provide "full pre-sealed kosher meals," and if it's not willing to do this, he "should be allowed to set up a kosher area," and prison personnel should be instructed on how to keep food kosher.

He adds at the very end that the defendants should pay all his legal costs plus $150,000 in punitive and "declatory" damages.


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