Are Jews Treated any Fair in Prison? Anti-Semitism inside Prisons
Prison is not the best place for anyone! It affects each person differently; but always has an impact on a person's life.
For Jews in prison, their reality comes in two-fold. First, as a Jew, prison is a source of embarrassment for the whole community, a source of shunda. Thus, Jews in prison are written off by their community and left alone to the prison system. What's worse, even their families get shunned in the community.
Second, an incarcerated Jew is a lonely person, mistreated within the prison walls by the legions of anti-Semites, and shunned by their people, such that they have nothing to go back to.
This article will take a keener look at the life of a Jew in prison, and the measures put in place to help them continue with their lives, during and after incarceration.
Prison provides Jews with unique challenges based on their skin color, stereotypes surrounding them, and a large group of people dedicated to hating and stigmatizing them. This, in turn, creates some other problems, making it harder to identify Jews inside prisons.
To understand this, we must first understand how the American prison system works, to find out the unique position most Jews find themselves in.
It is important to note that prison beliefs still hold Jews to the ancient stereotypes of stingy and selfish people with control over the American culture and money, creating and sustaining the current global systems.
It is also worth noting that prison anti- Semitism is not mild and nuanced as you may find it in the public sphere. Here, people will celebrate their hate, with bold swastikas and anti- Semitic words tattooed across their bodies. They will beat and maim you for nothing other than being a Jew, which being a small population in prison, you can rarely do anything about it.
It is normal for most Jew prisoners to experience insults and other kinds of mistreatment for being Jews.
Most prison systems will impose a strict segregation rule to try to keep the piece. This means that people from different races will rarely be allowed to mix.
According to Ms. Bach, the spokesperson for the California corrections department, 'inmates like to be housed with people familiar to them. They want people from the same neighborhood, geographic area, and the same racial background.'
David Arenberg, an inmate, describes the level of segregation experienced inside prisons.
According to him, the prison hierarchy of supremacy starts from white supremacist groups such as the skinheads and the Aryan brotherhood, the blacks, American-born Mexicans, Mexican-born Mexicans, and the rest of the prison population.
According to David Arenberg, he was at the bottom of the totem pole in the prison system.
The irony of David Arenberg while in prison was related to his skin tone.
Since Jews look like white people, most prison systems that impose a segregation rule will place David together with white people in prison, the odd thing is that the white population of prisons is a majority of racist anti-Semites, mainly composed of skinheads and Arian brotherhood.
According to Arenberg, the way the segregation works is such that different groups may participate in group games, be in each other's cell but not sit on each other's beds, or share the TV.
Wait! It gets worse!
When it came to food and cafeteria rules, different races cannot share a meal, eat at the same table, or touch each other's food. All these could lead to a severe beating or even death.
Being a Jew meant that Arenberg looked white, but was hated by a majority of the white population, making his daily life a risk. He could not eat at the same time other white people ate; neither could he be seen joining other races’ tables or meals.
Luckily for Arenberg, he was a trained lawyer, and thanks to a successful piece of advice that helped out one of the members of the Arian brotherhood reduce a 21-year jail stint to zero, he got to survive.
The advice he proposed helped him get a deal allowing him to survive among the white population, where he ate after they had left the table. It also afforded him some protection as a Jew, as he could not get beat up, or worse, killed.
However, for most Jews, being locked up together with people who hate you, and glorify the regime that was out to exterminate your race is a traumatizing time. Jews have been beaten to death and gone through harrowing experiences while in prison.
According to Stefan Leeb, an inmate of the California Department of Corrections, being segregated with skinheads and white supremacists was the riskiest thing that could happen to his life. It was putting him together with people that hated him the most and would not flinch while taking his life.
He did not mind being housed with other races; however, the segregation system left him stuck with the worst kind of people.
Another problem Jews experience is the ability to practice their faith through a strict diet most Jews follow. This is what is known as kosher food, and is a special diet practicing Jews adhere to and is associated with what the Torah describes as clean food fit for consumption.
The kosher diet is considered a special kind of diet in prison, which will see the prison administration rejecting it and prisoners faking religion to access it.
It may be understandable why prisons cannot provide kosher meals, due to the way it is prepared, and the fallout it may have with other inmates. If statistics are anything to go by, food is one of the leading causes of prison strikes.
Although the free exercise of religion is a clause in the first amendment of the US constitution, most prison facilities still operate under their own rules, and they will not provide kosher meals for their Jew prison population.
There are, however, States with better treatment of its prison population.
New York is one such State, which has put some effort into accounting for its prison population's religious freedoms. As long as it does not pose a security threat, it is easier to acquire certain religious permissions than most states. New York also offers kosher meals to its Jewish population; however, this is done after an inmate passes a certain test, which shows they're Jews.
However, individuals such as Friedman are helping add some information about Jews into the prison system, through the book, 'the handbook for religious beliefs and practices.' The book outlines the needs of Jewish people when it comes to religion, as most of the time, the mistreatment of Jews comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding.
Apart from the religious diet involving Jews, another reason they experience a lot of discrimination is how they handle their religious practices.
For one, a Jew requires a couple of tools for their religious practice. These include a teffilin, a cubic black leather box with a strap used by orthodox Jewish men to wear on their arms, and head for weekend morning prayer.
A siddur is a Jewish prayer book that comes with their entire liturgy. A talit is a garment used as a symbol of faith for devotion to God. A kippah is another thing Jews use, which they wear on their heads.
Prisons have been known even to restrict religious freedoms for Jews to wear their religious attires. According to Neil Steinhorn, a member of the Jewish big brother and sister in Maryland, the problem is only getting worse.
Previously, it was easier to bring in religious tools of worship and even kosher food for special events such as Passover. However, he is now required to request for clearance months in advance, and he is limited to catering for only one meal per ceremony annually.
As previously stated, New York is the only state that has made decent strides towards providing for Jewish religious practices. Besides providing kosher meals, they also have religious leaders as part of their payroll, including a rabbi.
Due to the way Jews get treated inside prisons, by the time a Jew is sent to prison, most of them prefer to change their names and miss-identify themselves to avoid any problems inside prison.
On the other hand, things like kosher foods have resulted in huge numbers of 'fake Jews' identifying with the prison system specifically for kosher food benefits. This means an inmate search may give you a non-Jew pretending to be a Jew, or a jaw pretending to be non-Jew.
Another reason why most Jews fail to identify with their religion is a shame they may feel for failing their religion and spirituality or the fact that they were not raised in the strict fellowship of the Judaic way. This is why it is hard to get an accurate read of the exact number of incarcerated Jews in America.
There are approximately 4000-6000 Jews in prisons across America. This is only a mere 0.25% of the general prison population of America. Being a minority population, you get to understand why their issues are trivialized.
To find out who are real Jews inside prisons, most facilities will use several sincerity checks, which include, as previously stated, a written test.
Other religions also try to convert Jews into their religion, and this seems like a decent offer owed to the lack of support most Jews experience while in prison.
The little support for Jews has overtime seen an emergence and increase in the number of volunteers dedicated to providing a religious environment for Jewish inmates.
The number of organizations dedicated to assisting incarcerated Jews is only two in number, which provide support across the whole of the United States.
The organizations function through volunteers and funding from well-wishers and the B'nai Brith. However, money is a problem, as no one is willing to invest in the religious or physical health of inmates.
These two organizations will provide anything related to Jewish spirituality for their members. If allowed, they will bring worship tools, lead in prayer, provide advice, and provide kosher. They will also teach the Judaic way to inmates not raised in their faith.
The Aleph currently has a couple of hundreds of volunteers, while the Jewish Prisoner Service International (JPSI) comes with around 700 volunteers.
These are the people that transverses across America and ensure they reach as many Jews as possible, providing for their religious ceremonies and where acceptable, some kosher dietary needs.
According to the chair of the JPSI, the government employs only around 250 Jewish workers out of the 5000 staff chaplains available for employment. The rest of the required support comes from such organizations as Aleph to handle.
According to the Jewish religion, every inmate has the chance for redemption, or as they put it, Pidyon Shevuim. This is the guiding principle for the JPSI, and the reason for volunteers to cater for incarcerated Jews.
Apart from catering to their spiritual needs, the JPSI and the Aleph is also a way for Jews to get help in re-entering society. Being that inmates are shunned by their society and the problems they experience while inside prison, they need some help bouncing back and coping with society, not excited to see them.
Inmates will get $40 and some clothes on their back, while also getting help with their release plans.
As previously stated, family members also get a cold shoulder over individuals in the family getting incarcerated. This means they also require some support. The Aleph organization came through for these people through the F.E.E.L.S program, a family program that was started to assist with the inmates' relative's psychological and financial situations.
One odd thing about Jewish inmates is that most of them go to prison, not well versed in their Judaism. Statistics show that most Jewish inmates were not brought up strictly within their faiths.
However, the experience most Jews get in prison rather than causing them to shun the Judaic religion does the opposite. Most Jews come to love and embrace their religion, getting spiritually stronger in the face of suffering.
It is a sense of holding on to something that gives you hope as part of your heritage when everything is threatened. During the dark days of Hitler, Jews still practiced their religion, albeit in secret, as it grounded them to their identity, providing hope and a source of strength.
Inside the prison walls, a Jew who was not conscious or aware of their heritage and identity gets to understand what it means to be a Jew, and experience the worldview of their people in the rawest form.
It has the effect of embracing their heritage and getting the need to understand themselves and religion better, to be able to master the courage and conviction of everyday life American prisons.
Through organizations like JPSI, these Jewish inmates get to be instructed in their Jewish religion.
They are provided with reading materials and information regarding themselves. What happens is most Jewish people enter the prison system unsure of their identity and come out as stronger individuals, sure in their Judaic ways, and what it means to be a Jew.
With all the problems that Jews experience, you might wonder whether there is any safe space for Jew inmates.
As long as your prison stint is not as serious as murder, rape, and other kinds of violent crimes, and is less than ten years, you can choose to go to Otisville prison. This is where most white-collar Jew criminals are incarcerated.
The place adheres to the Jewish religious traditions, and you will get to enjoy kosher meals and participate in all Jewish religious practices.
Expect to find some of the infamous people there, including Sheldon Silver, the previous speaker for the New York assembly, and Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen.
According to a rabbi David, Jewish inmates need to know their religion. Most people in prison have a lot of time on their hands and a willingness to learn, a factor that motivates the rabbi.
Others have used the fact that judgment belongs to God, meaning they volunteer to teach as they would any other person.
Generally, most volunteers do so out of the need for more Jewish volunteers, and the need to support Jews in prison.
Crime is a bad thing; however, punishment should befit the crime. Since most Jews in prison are paying for their crimes, don't they deserve the same chance at redemption as seen with other religious denominations in prison?
A man's body may be the State's subject to control and punish; however, the soul belongs to God, and only he can pass judgment on it! The lack of permission for proper Jewish religious practices sends the message that even the criminal's soul is condemned. An unfair and repulsive notion!
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