Due to the recent political climate surrounding the Animal Rights movement and in light of new laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which ramp up punishment for those working to end animal oppression, addressing non-religious dietary restrictions in the prison system is becoming an ever more pressing issue.
There is a deficit of empathy in America for prisoners because people who have been incarcerated are not only disenfranchised but are easy to stereotype as unsavory characters. But when new laws like the AETA are criminalizing even constitutionally protected activities like public education and leafletting, we are forced to reexamine some of our ideas about people in prison. Acknowledging that many people in the prison system are wrongfully incarcerated is the first step toward rehumanizing them, turning them from political whipping boys into citizens again.
How many activists in history have gone to prison for acts of conscience? From anti-war activists during the conflict in Vietnam, to civil rights leaders, and suffragettes, some of the most important agents of change had to spend time behind bars for their beliefs. Sadly it is often only in hindsight that we realize how harsh the treatment of political prisoners actually is. Suffragettes in prison who went on hunger strike in the early 20th century were force-fed by guards simply for demanding their right to vote.
Many animal rights activists who are currently in prison for various activities linked to animal liberation are denied vegan food because their reasoning for not eating animals doesn’t fit what the government sees as “acceptable” reasons for requiring special dietary accommodations. Because of the first amendment, the government cannot deny someone proper food if it is required under their religious practices, but they can deny someone proper food if they request it due to their secular morality. Non-religious vegans in prison have the option of lying in an attempt to convince the administration that their dietary requirements are religious, or trying to make a case to receive vegan food on other grounds, which is too often unsuccessful.
It is nearly impossible to get Americans to speak out on behalf of prisoners, but it is high time that we start to recognize that religion is no longer the only form of moral practice that needs to be respected. Humanity has come a long way from the medieval standards of spirituality and moral mandates of the past thousand years. To deny the dedication of members of progressive secular movements simply because they lack belief in an incorporeal omniscient being is not only an outdated mindset, but factually false. It benefits everyone when the government acknowledges and respects people who wish to do good in the world, even if they aren’t doing it in the name of a god.
The amount of accommodation required to give a vegan in prison proper nutrition is so minute, and the ethical importance of doing so is so great that there is no excuse for the government’s obstinacy. No matter how much they are vilified in politics or the media, prisoners are human beings with basic rights including proper nutrition. To deny someone their basic rights for not being religious is a perverse and backwards interpretation.
There are few better measures of the moral health of a society than the way it treats its prisoners and its animals. It would go far to bring America into the 21st century to not only show respect for veganism, but especially for vegans in the prison system.
I also wanted to make it very clear that none of this should be interpreted as a slight to people of faith who work for animal sights, there are many wonderful people involved with groups like the Christian Vegetarian Association who have my profound respect.
Photo: Mr.Thomas on flickr