Behind bars

Arizona's Jewish prisoners no longer forgotten

Greater Phoenix Jewish News/January 9, 1985
By Joseph Stocker

In a nondescript orange stucco building, so old that it seems to have a predated statehood, a Hanukkah service is being conducted for a handful of Jewish prisoners at the Arizona State Prison at Florence. In charge of the service are three representatives from Temple Beth Israel - Rabbi Albert Plotkin, Cantor Emeritus Maurice Chesler and David Sobol. The latter is a religious studies major at Arizona State University, designated by the rabbi and the temple brotherhood to coordinate the temple's outreach and educational services to inmates in the Central Unit (maximum security) at Florence.

Simultaneously, a half-mile or so down the road from the ancient penitentiary, at a facility called the East Unit, another Hanukkah service is being conducted by Rabbi David Pinkwasser of Temple Emanuel in Tempe. The group attending this service consists of medium and minimum-security prisoners.

Why take note of such seemingly inconsequential happenings? Because they're a symbol of big change. Not too many years ago no attention would have been paid to Hanukkah in the state prison system. Indeed, very little attention was being paid to Jewish prisoners themselves. They felt, with reason, that they were a forgotten people.

Today they're getting a great deal of attention. Hanukkah services were held not only at Florence but in most of the other state and federal correctional institutions in the state. High Holy Day services were held there last fall, Passover services last spring.

Thanks to intensive organization and coordination, every institution now has a congregation in the Phoenix or Tucson area assigned to "cover" it, to meet the needs of its Jewish inmates. Rabbis are donating religious articles - books, menorahs, etc. Delicatessens and bakeries are donating Jewish food. Jewish businessmen and civic leaders are going out of their way to find jobs for newly-released Jewish inmates. The Jewish Family and Children's Service has a paid staff member working full time (and traveling thousands of miles a month) to coordinate services to Jewish prisoners.

If anybody deserves the credit for getting this whole thing going, it's Rick Ross, the JFCS staffer.

Ross is 32, a longtime Phoenician and a former businessman (auto salvage). He got caught up in the fight against proselytizing and cults because his grandmother was accosted by a missionary at a nursing home. Then he became interested in the problem of the neglected prison inmates. He left his business, sold his BMW and lived off his savings 9"I probably have spent about $20,000 on this work") until his appointment to the JFCS staff.

The results are impressive. As recently as a year and a half ago, for instance, there were about 20 Jewish men in protective custody at Florence, mainly to safeguard them from the viciously anti-Semitic Aryan brotherhood. Only about half-dozen remain in protective custody today, and they are there for reasons other than that they're Jewish. They owe money to fellow prisoners, or they testified against other inmates, or their offenses were such - sex crimes, for example - as to excite hostility among other prisoners.

Ross says the "Jewish presence" at the prison has much to do with the new-found sense of security felt by Jewish prisoners.

"Now when a Jew comes into the prison there's a support group waiting there," he explains. "An older prisoner says to a new arrival, 'If you've got a problem, come around. We've been in the system for awhile. We know the ropes. We know how to stay safe. We're here to help you. We're your brothers. We're all in this together.'

"There's a feeling of camaraderie…of companionship. And it has helped to ameliorate the danger of Jews. We haven't had a single episode (of violence) with regard to a Jewish prisoner in well over a year."

As a result of Ross' intervention with the authorities, Jewish prisoners may now wear yarmulkes. They may wear fringes. One even has sidecurls and walks unharmed through the "yard."

Ross has official status not only within the Jewish community but within the correctional community. He is a member of the state Department of Corrections' religious advisory committee and recently was elected to its four-member executive board. Many denominational groups are represented on the advisory committee.

Ross spends much of his time - in his own words - "schmeikling" (smiling), schnorring and shlepping" to get done what, in his view, needs to be done for the Jewish prisoners. A more conventional word for it is "coordinating." He also describes it as "reaching out into our Jewish community and getting people involved."

He coordinates programs of Jewish education for prisoners who want it - including some who aren't Jewish but contemplate conversion. He coordinates a program under which chaplains in the correctional system foregather at a DOC facility in Tucson to hear Ronnye Freidenn, state director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, talk about hate groups and how to recognize them. He helps women in the Jewish Community Center's seniors programs set up a "bubble lunch" for inmates of the Perryville facility. He gently pressures prison officials to put into effect at least a modified kosher diet. "Jewish prisoners who desire it can now get one kosher meal per day and two pork substitutes," explains Ross. "We're hoping that some day it will be a complete kosher diet program. So for the first time a Jew can eat a kosher meal in prison. In other words, a Jew can be a Jew in prison. And that's what we're working toward."

Not long ago, Rabbi Pinkwasser officiated at the first Jewish funeral service within the prison system. It was a 45-year-old inmate who had no family and was simply buried in a state cemetery behind the prison. Ross was there and gave a eulogy.

"We formed a minyan of the Jewish prisoners who knew him and they said Kaddish," Ross recalls.

He credits Rabbi Plotkin with being among the first - if not the first - to recognize the Jewish prisoners' needs and to do something about it organizationally.

"He dug into his discretionary fund and came up with about $500 to underwrite the first Passover package program a couple years ago," said Ross. "He has donated many books, and he has raised the entire commitment level of the congregation. He got the Beth Israel Brotherhood involved and now has appointed David Sobol as coordinator for prisoner services."

Help from other congregations and individuals followed. And then, says Ross, the real "breakthrough" occurred when Lois Tuchler, executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Service, led a move to make Jewish prisoner services an integral part of the agency's program. Ross first received "subsistence pay" to help defray his expenses and then was given full staff status as Jewish prisoner coordinator.

"We're trying through the various programs to offer Jewish prisoners a meaningful option - spiritual growth and Jewish education - even though they're incarcerated," says Ross. "To the Jewish prisoner we're saying, 'Your Jewish life didn't end just because you're having to spend a very long time in prison. So, okay, you made some mistakes, We're here so you can have a Jewish life in prison. But perhaps equally important, we're going to be available so you can have a Jewish life when you get out.'"

In a larger sense JFCS and other elements of the community working with it are - as Ross puts it are - "taking on the whole issue of the incarcerated Jew."

"We're trying to really have an impact on the rate of recidivism among Jewish people," he says. "And I think we're doing terrifically because there has not yet been a Jewish prisoner who has gone out through our program and returned into the prison system with a new felony conviction. And many have gone out."

Ross spends 20 to 26 hours a month at Florence and visits other institutions as well. Gradually over the months he has won acceptance within what understandably is one of the most rigid authoritarian structures in our society - that of the prison bureaucracy.

How is it done?

"Just by working with the officials…visiting regularly…becoming known…being a familiar face," he says. "You establish yourself by your actions, because actions speak louder than words. And many have respect for religious people - especially those who have a consistent track record, who are not sporadic in their efforts. Some people burn out. You just have to hang in there…be persistent…and deal on a one-on-one basis."

Ross goes unescorted into the cell blocks to visit prisoners. He also visits - although with escort - the notorious Cell Block 6, which encompasses death row and the maximum security lockup. A few months ago, following a riot which broke out at an inter-prisoner football game, he went into the cell blocks to check on the physical well-being of Jewish prisoners whom he knew.

Recently, at a Tucson DOC facility, he attended the conversion of Judaism of a Gentile, inmate - the first, he said, in the history of the corrections system. The inmate was David Grooms, who grew up in an evangelical fundamentalist Christian environment and studied Judaism under Rabbi Maynard Bell of Temple Sotol of Scottsdale. The conversion ceremony was conducted by Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum of Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, and Ross signed as one of the witnesses.

He encounters some anti-Semitic harassment from prisoners but shrugs it off. "Anti-Semitism," says Ross, "is a reality in our society, and the rate of anti-Semitism has risen significantly in the last few years."

Ken Ashelman, a long-timer at Florence who was one of the inmates attending the Plotkin-Chesler-Sobol Hanukkah service, commented on the difficulties that Jews encounter in a prison environment.

"It's kind of hard to be a good Jew in an atmosphere antagonistic to the Jewish people," he said.

Ross would like to see the program for Jewish prisoners extended ultimately to embrace not only all the state and federal correctional institutions but all county jails as well.

"I'd like to make it a statewide program," he said, "in which we send notification to all the county jails advising them that there is a Jewish prisoner service, and that we're willing to come out and coordinate the religious needs of Jewish prisoners wherever they may be."

Ross conjectures that his principle function may simply have been to "wake up" a Jewish community that was "asleep" insofar as the needs of Jewish prisoners were concerned.

"And what I've found as they've come out of their slumber," he says, "is that they've been attentive compassionate and helpful. And this is really a beautiful statement about our Arizona Jewish community."

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