Is Fish Meat? Prison Forces Vegetarian to Eat It

Fish is meat. Many servers I’ve had at restaurants did not understand this, and recommended fish when I asked if their menus included vegetarian options.

More importantly, the state of Connecticut does not understand this. Its Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution serves an incarcerated vegetarian, Howard Cosby, three dinners of fish a week, no substitutions.

Cosby is a practicing Buddhist of a branch that forbids eating meat. The 35-year-old must have come to this religion, which calls for non-violence, later in life, given that he is serving a 19 and a half year sentence for sexual assault. Not the most sympathetic poster-boy, but nonetheless, anyone interested in keeping government out of people’s religious beliefs — or in the integrity of the English language, basic biology education, or making it easier to be vegetarian — has reason to back him up on this.

A federal statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, prohibits prisons from imposing substantial burdens on inmates’ religious observance. Courts across the country have relied on this law to rule that prisons must provide vegetarian food to some prisoners, and that fish flesh is not vegetarian. If it were, we wouldn’t need a different word for people who eat fish but no other animals. (If you’re wondering, the word is pescetarian.)

Animal Blawg notes that the Catholic Church, like Connecticut’s Department of Prisons, categorizes fish as not-meat, which is where the tradition of eating it on Fridays and during Lent comes from. Catholics are supposed to deprive themselves on those days, and some people think forgoing meat is a deprivation. Clearly they have never seen an Isa Chandra Moskowitz cookbook.

Where do people come up with the idea that some corpses are not meat? Maybe there is a causal effect between the Catholic doctrine and the prison’s menu, but I think it is more likely that the confusion of the Church, prison officials and waiters comes from the same place. That place could be the enormous differences between fishes and the other animals Americans and Europeans commonly eat, like chickens, cows and pigs. Fishes don’t do the things we expect of those animals: they can’t breathe air; they don’t walk on legs; most of them make no sounds that we can hear; and they aren’t warm-blooded. Ergo, not meat!

On the other hand, fishes are conscious. They feel pain and fear. They have mothers and faces. They poop. They fall into the animal kingdom. The same cannot be said of vegetables.

As far as the free exercise of religion goes, the problem isn’t that the prison’s meal-planning makes no sense. It is that government should not dictate how a religion defines its beliefs.

Cosby sought help from PETA, which has sent a letter to the prison. The organization notes that one judge chastised prison officials for refusing to provide an inmate with vegan meals, saying, “why make a federal case out of it? … [W]hat the State did here, digging in its heels and saying no, seems quite unreasonable to me.”

We’ll see how reasonable Connecticut is.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock/iStockphoto


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Diane L.
Diane L.2 years ago

Deborah S., please try to comment only on the topic and not make things personal with insults "tossed in" for good measure. I most certainly HAVE "paid attention", and sorry that you are of the opinion that I haven't. I stick to what I've said that this prisoner, who is not paying to be in CLUB MED, is being fed nutritious food, or at least it's being provided for him. If he chooses not to eat what he doesn't want, that is his choice.

Three long diatribes directed at me, personally, because I disagree with you about giving this convicted felon a special diet? Seriously? Once again, he's not being forced to eat anything. Foregoing one thing in his meals (and he's being offered THREE per day, which is more than most unemployed and/or homeless people scrape up these days) will certainly provide for his nutritional needs if he eats the rest. He's looking for special treatment and attention at tax payers expense.

Deborah S.
Deborah S.2 years ago

Diane L.
The bulk of your argument seems to be that no one is forcing this prisoner to eat meat. What you seem incapable of understanding is that no one here is arguing that they ARE -- at least not in the gun-to-the-head way you imply. The point is this... please pay attention this time...

The discrimination shown toward this prisoner is not that they force him to eat meat, but that they force him to choose between his principles and starving to death. If he "chooses" to ONLY eat the non-meat portions of his daily diet -- given that meat is almost always "the main course" in this country and constitutes the largest part of the meal -- he simply won't get enough calories on a daily basis to stay alive and healthy. The equal treatment I espouse is that he be given an EQUAL number of calories and EQUAL nutrition as those who eat the meat portion of their meals.

Your example is ludicrous. "He has the right to not eat what he doesn't want, same as if I were incarcerated and given chili.......I'd simply "pass" and eat whatever else was on the plate.."

You might pass on the chili one meal out of one day and be none the worse for it, but if you had to give up half of ALL your meals EVERY day, you WOULD suffer. It is not a "perk" (as you said) to be allowed adequate calories and proper nutrition to avoid sickness and death.

Deborah S.
Deborah S.2 years ago

Diane L.
You said this (among your many other outrageous, and generally mindless “arguments”)...

“First of all, this guy isn't being FORCED to eat anything. Secondly, he's a convicted felon, convicted of a very violent crime and he's in PRISON, not CLUB MED. He gets the right to be fed 3 square meals a day (3 more than many innocent people who are not incarcerated), and there is no law that says he has to be fed SPECIAL food for his health, like he's diabetic or on kidney dialysis or whatever. If he doesn't like or want the fish, he can eat whatever else is given him.”

Ignoring the fact that being a felon, in your mind, makes someone suddenly a lesser person without rights, the truly ridiculous statement comes in when you say he is entitled to “3 square meals a day” while contradicting his right to that very thing by expecting him to get by on less than half as much in your last sentence.

Do you really NOT see that if he forgoes the meat portion, he is losing more than half the available calories in each of those meals. Go look up how many calories you get from a piece of steak or a pork chop and compare that to ½ a cup of green beans, carrot sticks or mashed potatoes. Is he getting “3 square meals a day” by eating only the rest of the food on his plate? Really?!

Deborah S.
Deborah S.2 years ago

Diane L.
I made this statement... "When you take a life to make your meal you are a carnivore."

To which you responded... "Deborah S., you suggest others consult a dictionary, yet you seem to not understand definitions, yourself. Someone who takes another's life is a murderer, or guilty of manslaughter. Neither term applies to hunters or those who slaughter livestock or who "fish". A carnivore is a species that eats NOTHING but, lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, etc. Even humans who eat a lot of meat usually do eat other things, so that makes them "omnivores"........look it up."

PLEASE NOTICE that I did not say "when you pull up a celery stalk and eat it with meat" you are a carnivore -- my sentence was very specifically about taking a life and then eating it. I mentioned nothing but animal tissue (meat). Meat-eaters are carnivores. Go back to your own dictionary and actually read it this time. As for your purely arbitrary definition of murder that includes only the taking of HUMAN life... while I personally believe ALL life is sacred to the individual who owns it -- whether man or "beast" -- THAT has nothing to do with the arguments raised here. You are changing the subject to sidetrack people into thinking it is pertinent to this question. That is a tactic most often employed by politicians and used car salesmen -- who have their own reasons for not wanting to stay on topic.

Michelle R.
2 years ago

Maybe I'm missing the point here, but I don't see why there is such a commotion about the prison food. If someone has special needs because of kidney problems, heart problems, etc. provide that for them, the others can pick their choice from what is served to them. Nobody is forced at gunpoint to eat meat, i'm sure.

Michael A.
Michael A.2 years ago


Angela l.
Angela L.3 years ago

vegetarian or not, you can't just force people to eat something they can't. Some of the food don't necessary mix well with certain human chemistry and make them sick or some people are simply allergic to certain food. Like kids never eat vegetables.

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Interesting, Dale, about no Canadian bacon in Canada! I've eaten it since a child and it has always been called that here. It's not like regular bacon..........far different in texture, color, taste and probably nutrition. It's more like thinly sliced ham and no fat.