Passover is around the corner and as we prepare for the festival of freedom, we do our cleaning and shopping and cooking (and a bit of complaining.) But for a select group of Jews, this time of year just means more routine – and imprisonment – as they serve their sentences behind bars.
Over the next few columns, I will look at life for Jews in prison, at why rabbis and other volunteers set aside time to visit them, learn what the Torah says about incarceration and find out what it’s like to (try to) observe Passover in jail.
Two major U.S. organizations that care for Jewish prisoners are the Aleph Institute , a chaplaincy organization created under the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1981, and Jewish Prisoner Services International (JPSI). “We’re a small but dedicated bunch,” Chaplain Gary Friedman, Chairman of JPSI told Aish.com in 2010. He estimated that of the over 5,000 staff chaplains employed by federal and state institutions across the U.S., only some 250 are Jewish, and most of those on a part-time basis, leaving most of the work of looking after the needs of Jewish prisoners to volunteers.
On this side of the border, According to Correctional Service Canada in 2016-17, there were 177 offenders who identified themselves as being Jewish, representing 0.8 per cent of the total prison population. That was up from 159 in April 2005.
“Most people are surprised to discover that Jews go to prison for non-white collar crimes,” said Friedman. “We come from a community that believes our people don’t do anything wrong, at least not really wrong,” said Friedman. “But unfortunately we do.” (Chaplain Friedman passed away in 2016.)
There are several sites which provide information like JewishPrisoner.com and JewsinPrison.org. They pull no punches and warn of the loneliness and boredom, anti-Semitism behind bars, and the challenges of practicing Jewish observances while in prison.
So what is it like to be Jewish in prison? Hell on earth? Or like being in a country club?
The New York Times recently presented a fascinating portrait of Otisville, the “Prison of Choice” to many well-known Jewish offenders. The Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, N.Y., offers “a rarity in the federal prison system: a full-time hasidic chaplain who oversees a congregation of dozens of Jewish inmates who gather for prayer services three times a day.
“‘For a Jewish person, there is no place like Otisville,’ said Earl Seth David, 54, a former inmate who attended kosher meals, religious classes and weekly Shabbat services in the prison shul, a shared space where the Torah scrolls are locked up every night.” As the Times’ Corey Kilgannon notes, “There are kosher vending machines in the visiting room. The prison commissary sells skullcaps for $6 and offers a kosher selection that includes matzo, gefilte fish, rugelach and seltzer [and] before many holidays, the men are taken by prison bus to a nearby town for traditional mikvah baths.”
But David said prison was no picnic. The lawyer from Manhattan served four years in seven federal prisons, including Otisville, on immigration fraud charges. “There’s no swanky pool. You’re up at 6 a.m. every morning for the inmate count. The guards can raid your bunk at any time and you get zero rights, zero privacy. You’re sleeping next to 100 snoring men. So being able to practice your faith helps you survive.”
Earl Seth David’s years at Otisville were no picnic but they don’t compare to the hellish time that David Arenberg put in. In a harrowing memoir, he recounts navigating the shoals of anti-Semitism at a state prison where inmates demarcate themselves according to race – and Jews rarely fit in. Sit in the wrong seat, speak to the wrong person, share the wrong mail – and you could be putting your life in danger.
On one hand, Arenberg explains, you have the skinheads, who “claim to be fundamentally ideological. They exist as a political entity dedicated, they say, to organizing to fight the big war, the race war, which will reassert white political dominance in the world.” And then you have the Aryan brotherhood, with swastikas, lightning bolts and KKK hoods tattooed on their arms, they are, “the political rival of the skinheads. They are the old guard, the white leadership that has run the yards for years. They control the drug markets, the poker tables, the tattoo shops.”
Given that company, who would want to be a Jew in jail? A lot of people, actually. Well, sort of. Throughout the system, there are non-Jewish prisoners who suddenly discover Judaism and demand what they see as the perks that go to Jewish inmates ranging from visits from chaplains, holiday observances – and of course, the food. Kosher food is seen to be of superior quality and is provided to many inmates who declare themselves Jewish. The range of proof required varies but can be as minimal as an affirmation on a form.
And the system complies. As I learned from a fascinating feature in Seattle Weekly, “In Washington, as in most states, a prisoner fills out a form declaring his or her religion, and the state accepts that declaration at face value. It doesn’t matter if a prisoner was born a Baptist and has been a known member of a white supremacist organization for decades. If the prisoner now claims to be an Orthodox Jew, in the eyes of the state Department of Corrections, he is now an Orthodox Jew.”
Here is a Guiding Principle from Correctional Service Canada on this topic. “With regard to religious diets, inmates who need to follow a specific diet to meet the requirements of their faith shall be provided with the appropriate diet. The religious diets shall be approved by the institutional Chaplain.”
Former inmate Daniel Genis makes an excellent point in his article in Tablet, The Surprising Popularity of Kosher Food in Prison. “In most other times and places, lying about Judaism went the other way. Conversos in Spain pretended to convert to Catholicism while keeping Jewish practices alive.”
In his experience, hot kosher meals were definitely superior to the general fare. Cold kosher meals much less so but since all kosher meals are provided in tamper-proof packaging, inmates still preferred food they knew hadn’t been fiddled with.
Prisons may be required to kosher food (no questions asked.) But doing the same can put a strain on outside Jewish organizations when they need to know how many inmates REALLY need gefilte fish and dreidels and shmurah matzo and charoset. Although Daniel Genis never considered himself a snitch, he did disclose to an outside rabbi “the number of men I knew to be born of a Jewish mother, with a few extra thrown in to give guys the benefit of the doubt.”
Next time, we meet some remarkable men and women who volunteer their time to meet with and comfort Jews behind bars.