If you're vegan and you go to jail, do you get vegan meals? In a city with a substantial vegan population, this is no trivial question. It turns out that, while the law does not require jails to provide vegan options, San Francisco County jails do serve vegan meals on request, and we have PETA activists to thank for it.
According to Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations, only prisoners with special medical needs or religious beliefs are required to be provided different meals. For those whose religious beliefs dictate their diet, the jail must provide kosher and vegetarian options:
3054. Religious Diet Program.
There shall be at least two distinct religious diet options: (1) Vegetarian. (2) Jewish kosher.
3054.1. Religious Vegetarian Diet.
Religious vegetarian meals shall be available at all institutions. Inmates with determined religious dietary needs ... shall be provided with an approved vegetarian protein alternative(s) from that same days' scheduled meal.
However, there is no mention of vegan meals in the regulations. So how did San Francisco County become so vegan-friendly?
According to Eileen Hirst, chief of staff at the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, S.F. County jails didn't always have vegan meals. "In the mid-'90s, the organization PETA was demonstrating outside Neiman Marcus," she tells SF Weekly. "A large group was arrested, and they asked for vegan meals." Sheriff Michael Hennessey looked into getting vegan meals for the PETA protesters, and found that it could be easily done.
So thanks to the PETA protesters, S.F. jails now serve vegan meals. "Vegans do get arrested from time to time, so we never thought of ending [the vegan meals] even though the fur protests are over," Hirst says.
However, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk told SF Weekly that it has not always been easy for prisoners to get vegan food in jails elsewhere across the country.
"I think the very first time in the U.S. that a jail served vegan food was in the '90s, when about forty of us, all vegans, were locked up in the historic Pottsville [Pa.] Prison," she recounts. "The jail worked hard for two weeks to give us vegan food, even though it was a little odd at times -- sunflower seeds baked in their husks in rice, for example, making eating a tad difficult, and thinking we couldn't have grapes or grape juice as they told us, 'That's the blood of Christ, and we know you can't have that' -- we had no idea where they got that from."
But some other jails didn't even bother to try. "Usually, the joke we made when locked up with a novice, after taking over a fashion show runway or jumping in front of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, and we're asked, 'What will they feed us?' was 'Air sandwich' -- meaning bologna sandwich with no bologna in it," Newkirk says. "Last time I was in New York jail about four years ago we got that, plus an orange."
Newkirk says U.S. jails have a long way to go compared to other countries. "In the U.K., vegan prisoners are totally catered to -- no down in the pillow, no wool in the blankets," she says. "We still hear from vegan prisoners [in the U.S.] who don't have anything to eat, and are busy playing swap shop with their fellow inmates. For some, it's still slim pickings."
Bottom line: If you're vegan and plan to commit a crime, do it in S.F. That way, at least you'll get more than an air sandwich.
Update: Activist Anita Carswell calls us to claim credit for getting vegan food in jail: "PETA had nothing to do with this vegan victory!" she says.