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Behind Bars

February 23, 2010 | by Jenny Hazan

Jews in prisons and the people who have not forgotten them.

An online petition by more than 200 Jewish groups gathered more than 36,000 signatures against the execution of Martin Edward Grossman, a Jewish inmate who was nevertheless recently brought to death at Florida State Prison for murdering a wildlife officer more than 25 years ago.

This outpouring of Jewish support for the Jewish death row inmate, who committed the crime as a 19-year-old, drug-addicted high school dropout with an IQ of 77 and a history of epilepsy, is a true exception to the rule.

“There are a few groups in American Jewish society -- the elderly, and prisoners -- that are overlooked. Jews don’t even want to know that there are Jewish prisoners. They are ashamed. It’s a shunda,” says Manuel Weiss, 58, an activist attorney in Colorado Springs, who took on the fight for the religious liberties of Jewish prisoners in 1995. “What it comes down to is that these guys are alone -- oftentimes their families have written them off, and the Jewish community wants nothing to do with them.”

“Our primary objective with Jews who are incarcerated is to ensure they have the opportunity to practice their faith."

Weiss is among 700 volunteers for Jewish Prisoner Services International (JPSI), a national organization dedicated to helping Jews in prisons across the U.S. Another few hundred are affiliated with the Aleph Institute. These are the only two nation-wide non-profit organizations dedicated to helping Jews behind bars. They work together to arrange rabbinical visitations, holiday services, religious and educational programming, religious freedom advocacy, and to supply Jewish resources to the prisons’ usually Christian staff chaplains.

“We’re a small but dedicated bunch,” says Chaplain Gary Friedman, Chairman of JPSI, who estimates 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.


“Most people are surprised to discover that Jews go to prison for non-white collar crimes,” says Friedman. “We come from a community that believes our people don’t do anything wrong, at least not really wrong,” says Friedman. “But unfortunately we do.”

Aleph and JPSI volunteers reach Jews in hundreds of institutions across 45 states. “We are guided by a philosophy. According to Maimonides, in the Laws of Charity, one takes priority over all the rest: Pidyon Shevuim, the redemption of captives,” says Friedman. “Our primary objective with Jews who are incarcerated is to ensure they have the opportunity to practice their faith, which translates into their chance for redemption.”

The view from inside

According to Friedman, this is easier said than done. Jews in prison face many unique challenges. To start, it is difficult to find them. Since prisoners are eligible to change their religious status once a year, there are many who list themselves as ‘Jewish’ when they’re not. Friedman estimates this is the case with some 20,000 prisoners in the U.S., who do this most often to obtain a kosher diet, which is perceived as ‘cleaner’ than common prison fare. “There are more riots in prison over food than anything else,” notes Friedman.

Some 20,000 non-Jewish prisoners in the U.S. list themselves as Jewish, most often to obtain a kosher diet.

On the other side of the coin are those inmates who are Jewish, but who refuse to identify themselves as Jews, either because they were raised in non-observant homes and it means little to them, or because they have strayed from Judaism and feel unworthy or ashamed of their affiliation.

Add to this another reason for staying quiet about being Jewish: it poses certain social challenges in prison. “Socially, prison is very hard for Jewish people. It might not be so comfortable, the language of the inmates is very rough, and there are some anti-Semitic instances, though they are not very common. Jewish people are often very lonely in prison,” says Rabbi Avrohom David, 45, head of the Seattle Kollel, who has visited prisoners at the federal detention center in SeaTac, Washington for the last 14 years. “A lot of them -- men and women -- go to bed crying every night. It’s not an easy thing. It’s very hard on people.”

Taking all of these factors into consideration, it’s difficult to get an accurate read on the number of Jews in prison. The Aleph Institute estimates there are some 4,000-6,000 halachic Jews in federal, state and county institutions, representing some 0.25% of the 2.4 million men and women in prison in the U.S. JPSI estimates are much higher, 12,000-15,000, or some 0.63%.

Once they are identified, a process which usually entails a series of sincerity checks -- Greenhaven maximum security prison in Stormville, New York forces Jewish-listed prisoners to write a test which they must pass in order to receive the country’s only hot kosher meal program -- volunteers go into action.

The battlefield is set with teams of messianic Christian volunteers, who with seemingly endless budgets manage to circumvent laws against proselytizing. Friedman estimates their numbers at around 500,000. Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Program, an evangelical Christian organization with an annual budget over $60 million, alone contributes thousands of volunteers, nationwide.

“There are legions of evangelicals trying to convert prisoners and their families and the rest of us are doing what we can to spite them,” says Friedman, who in addition to chairing JPSI, serves as headquarters chaplain for the Washington State Department of Corrections and is the sole Jewish prison staff chaplain in his region of the United States.

“There are legions of evangelicals trying to convert prisoners and their families and the rest of us are doing what we can to spite them."

It was this ‘imbalance’ at the Davis correctional facility in Holdenville, Oklahoma, that inspired Bob Rubin, 68, to get involved in prison volunteering in 2005. “On my first visit, there were dozens of Christian volunteers doing Bible studies with some 200 prisoners,” recalls Rubin, who now serves as Religious Liaison for Jewish offenders across Oklahoma State. “I didn’t like the set-up where the 6-8 Jews there had nobody to talk to, to answer questions, or to visit them.”

In many cases, Christian staff chaplains, or the institution itself, obstruct minority faith observance. Despite the Free Exercise of Religion clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, many prison facilities, each of which goes according to its own rules, still operate out of ignorance, and incarcerated Jews are systematically denied kosher food, religious articles, and the ability to practice certain religious rites.

According to Friedman, who helped draft The Handbook of Religious Beliefs and Practices, a policy guide for corrections systems meant to counter this problem, denials are more often than not the result of lack of education and understanding. “Jews are misunderstood in general,” he says. “The ones in prison are no exception.”

“There have been prisoners that have had their teffilin, siddur, and talit confiscated; those told that they aren’t allowed to wear a kippa; those told they can only lay teffilin on Thursday mornings; and others told that they can only light Shabbat candles before 3 p.m.; or to only ‘light’ electric candles,” says Weiss. “I am talking about the regular denial of religious liberties.”

According to Neil Steinhorn, 60, who along with members of the Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister League in Maryland, has been visiting Maryland state prisons for the last 15 years, this situation has only gotten worse. Five years ago, he used to bring in a menorah and candles and donuts for Chanukah, and for Passover, he would bring in kosher meals and lead a 1.5-hour seder. Nowadays, he says, he has to get clearance to bring items in months in advance, and they are limited to catering one ceremonial meal per religion per year. “Things have become a lot stricter,” he says.

New York is one of the only states that puts a concerted effort into balancing security concerns with considerations for religious practice. It hires staff chaplains at state facilities, and most large facilities have a Muslim Imam, Catholic and Protestant chaplains, and a Rabbi on the payroll.

“If you look at states across the country, I think you’ll find that New York stands out in terms of allowing religious practice, as long as it doesn’t present a security problem,” says Ken Perlman, Deputy Commissioner in charge of Program Services throughout the New York state prison system. “But New York is different from most other states.”

The view from outside

In addition to the unique challenges that Jewish prisoners face behind bars, they face a series of challenges outside of prison, too. Unlike their Christian counterparts, organized Jewish community organizations tend not to support their brethren behind bars.

Only B’nai Brith, the birthplace of JPSI, which became independent from its mother organization in 1997, gives some funding to the cause. Besides that, it’s all up to the Aleph Institute and JPSI. “We are not the most popular cause; people prefer to look the other way,” says Friedman. “If it’s a choice to give to heder, or disabled people, or whatever -- anything else will get funding first.”

“People don’t see investing in offenders as an investment in the future,” says Rubin. “They see it as a dead end. It’s tragic. Many of these folks are good people who have done bad things.”

The result: Jewish prisoners are loners, both in the prison system and out of it.

“Family members are often wrongfully judged. They are not guilty of anything but they are suffering too.”

Oftentimes, the families of incarcerated Jews carry the same social stigma as their imprisoned family member and are equally as alienated by the Jewish community. The Aleph Institute estimates there are some 25,000 spouses, children, and parents who fall into this category. To address this problem, they started the F.E.E.L.S. Family Program in 1984 to help look after their financial, psychological and social needs.

“Family members are often wrongfully judged. They are not guilty of anything but they are suffering too,” says Friedman. “A lot of our focus is on normalizing family members’ lives.”

When inmates are released from prison, they often need a lot of help. “Usually, they walk out with $40 in their pocket and the clothes on their back,” says Friedman. “We spend a lot of time with prisoners, working on their release plans.”

Says Friedman, the buzzword for the last decade has been, ‘reentry.’ “We Jews have been involved in reentry since Biblical times, except we don’t call it reentry. We call it teshuva -- repentance.”

Why they volunteer

Rubin deems this aspect of Jewish prisoner advocacy most important. It is why he holds weekly ‘equipping’ classes for Jewish prisoners. “The institutions feed and house the prisoners, but there is not enough money in the system to reeducate the prisoners and give them tools to survive in the outside world when they get out on parole. That’s the responsibility of volunteers,” he says.

Rubin’s classes teach everything from common courtesies and new popular technologies to how to apply for a job, get a driver’s license, and rent an apartment, to Jewish ethics. “These people become our neighbors. If you don’t want them to go back to the people they knew before they went in, which is usually the worst thing they can do, you have to give them the tools to stand on their own.

“I see these prisoners first and foremost as Jews, and a Jew is a Jew.”

“I see these prisoners first and foremost as Jews, and a Jew is a Jew,” he says. “My commitment to Jews in Oklahoma corrections facilities can be summed up in four words: No Jew Left Behind.”

Eleanor Gibson’s reasons are more personal. Twenty-five years ago the 65-year-old woman’s 18-year-old daughter was brutally murdered by one of her flatmates in her Seattle apartment. The 18-year-old Jewish boy, who is still serving a life sentence at a maximum security facility in Colorado, smashed the girl over the head with a dumbbell, strangled her, and then decapitated her.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 25 years,” says Gibson, who now lives with her second husband and three sons in a town called Grayland, on the Washington coast. “It happened 25 years ago, but it happened yesterday. It’s always yesterday.”

Several years after the murder, Gibson’s synagogue hosted a speaking engagement for Chaplain Friedman. He came to the small community to impress upon the congregants the urgent need for volunteers at the newly-built Stafford Creek Correctional Center, just 20 minutes from Grayland, which had become home to some six Jewish inmates.

“After talking to Chaplain Friedman and realizing that there was a desperate need for volunteers, I felt that maybe it would be something positive that would come out of it,” says Gibson.

After completing the year-long volunteer training course at the prison, Gibson, an observant woman, began teaching a class for the Jewish inmates on Hebrew, Jewish history and culture.

“In the beginning, it was very hard. Here I was, teaching a class to sex offenders and murderers. I had to overcome my own revulsion,” says Gibson, who for the last five years has taught the weekly three-hour class. “Last year, we started going over the Torah portion. The men have really come to enjoy it, and for me, well, it has become my island of sanity in the week.”

For Steinhorn, a lawyer who himself spent 18 months in a federal facility in Martinsberg, West Virginia 20 years ago for ‘structuring a monetary transaction,’ it is volunteers’ small shows of kindness that can make all the difference in the world.


“As a former recipient of volunteer services, I know how important they are and what a lifeline they can be,” he says. “Most prisoners’ families have given up on them and they never get visitors, so to give them, even just an hour a month, a conversation with someone who’s not part of the prison system, goes a long way.”

The power of Judaism for Jews behind bars cannot be overestimated.

Rabbi David says his interest in volunteering stems mostly from a desire to ensure that the prisoners have Jewish opportunities. “While in prison people are willing to learn more, and it’s a good opportunity to offer them more education,” he says. “Most of the people I have worked with come to a place where they realize what’s most important in life.

“There’s one idea that I teach,” he says. “We are never allowed to judge a person where they are in the eyes of God. If we were given the same set of circumstances they were, we may have done the same or worse. I teach it and try to live it as much as possible, and if you look at people in that way it’s a lot easier to visit them.”

Rabbi Michael Chill, who for the last 15 years has served as chaplain at Greenhaven, which has the largest Jewish prisoner population in New York state and possibly in the U.S., says the power of Judaism for Jews behind bars cannot be overestimated. “Religion is a very strong point, it helps them go out on the street and not come back. It’s a public safety issue,” he says. “If we release an individual into the community better than he came in, we are doing a service to the safety of the community.”

“You ask me why I do this work,” says Weiss, “it is the obligation of every Jew to come to the aid of another Jew in need of help.”

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