Pentateuchs for Prisoners

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Recently, we received a letter in the office from a person in jail, asking if we can send him a copy of the Torah. It wasn’t actually for us — MJL does a lot of things, but print media is, unfortunately, not one of them.

Now, I’m a firm believer in teshuvah, the ability to turn over a new leaf. I read William “Upski” Wimsatt’s No More Prisons, and, while I don’t believe literally in the title (neither does the author, I don’t think), I believe that prisoners have as much a right to do teshuvah as the rest of us. This guy’s worth a Tanakh, I thought. And he’s worth making a call over….

I contacted the Aleph Institute, a group that specializes in prisoner relations, which is loosely related to Chabad. The woman I spoke to on the phone was polite, courteous, and curiously firm: He isn’t on their list of Jewish prisoners; he probably doesn’t qualify. “Besides, it’s impossible for him to convert in a prison,” she said. “There’s no mikveh.”

Typical Orthodox arrogance! I thought. In a huff, I emailed Jewish Prisoner Services International, asking if they could rush in and save the day.

Surprisingly, I got a call back from Gary Friedman himself, the chairman of the organization — and, as it turns out, most of the manpower and elbow-grease of the organization, as well. After schooling me on the issue, he pointed me in the direction of this story, which reports that prisoners use Judaism, real or self-professed, to justify everything from special food (“Some like the prison kosher diet better than regular institutional chow — one prisoner says it tastes better, another claims it’s more nutritious, and a third says it helped him lose weight”) to conjugal visits (“based on [the prisoner's] interpretation of Jewish law,” notes the article).

The problem, Friedman told me, is that, according to civil law, “you are whatever religion you say you are.” That means that prisoners can — and many have — declared themselves to be Jewish, while in real life, they’re actually neo-Nazi gang members.

Some inmates devise even more ingenious schemes. In Clallam Bay, Washington, the notorious murderer Roland Pitre Jr., who was born Catholic and never underwent formal conversion to Judaism, leads Friday night services. One man Friedman told me about got a complimentary subscription to the local Jewish paper, culled the names of major donors and philanthropists, and attempted to pull a scam.

Now, that doesn’t mean that our correspondent was a fraud — and I was assured by Friedman that JPSI would do everything in its power to track down the man and institute the process. And I still do believe, when someone says they’re Jewish, they’re Jewish until proven otherwise. But it did caution me to be more careful about my trust…and whom I allow to print my charitable donations. ($1.35 to the Greenpeace girl in front of the building, y’all!)

Posted on August 26, 2008

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8 thoughts on “Pentateuchs for Prisoners

  1. MLK

    Wow, are we that obsessed with clan and membership that we can’t even give a prisoner the benefit of the doubt? No doubt there are many legitimate scammers, but are we really harmed by giving kosher food, or, heaven forbid, a free Pentateuch, to someone who is not halakhically Jewish?

  2. The Doctor

    Having worked in corrections, I can tell you that there are people who will get their hands on a tanakh, claim they are jewish, and then file civil rights lawsuits over issues like not being allowed to wear tzitzit [clothing can be a security issue], not being able to have visits with prisoners of opposite gender “for the relief of unbearable pressures” [it’s in there...], or even to be released after 6 years on a sabbatical issue. the authorities are not about to get into a dispute over what’s really jewish and what’s manipulation [even those of us on this listserve can’t always agree about what is normative Jewish practice] and giving books containing jewish law to anyone who asks in a correctional setting can open up an incredible can of worms…

  3. matthue Post author

    MLK: I know, that’s exactly what I thought! But have a look at the original article — according to Friedman, they get literally thousands of requests, and most of those are from scammers. Not some — most. I have the same feelings, but I can also understand the need for some sort of checks-and-balances system — Friedman doesn’t have enough money to provide a Bible to anyone who asks.

    I had a moment of outrage, how DARE they, and then I realized I had no business being annoyed. When was the last time I bought a Pentateuch for anyone? I think, the next time I have tzedakah to give, I’m gonna have to put my money where my mind is.

  4. clara1


    I have a criminal justice degree and worked with kids. And yes, they know how to play the game. Maybe the Tanakhs could be sent to the prison officials to give it to the prisoners who want a Tanakh. Then the officials could keep track of who is playing Jew and who really wants to convert. They hand out xian bibles like candy in jail and criminals use xianity to scam the public. I don’t think that prison officials would be scamed. I knew a Catholic Sister who worked in the prison system in FLA, and nothing got by her. She knew all the game and with both the prisoners and the prison officials. They wanted to hire her because she knew too much. When Bundy was going to ole sparky and claimed he had found xianity; I told the Sister that I didn’t believe that he had found xianity and she readily agreed.


  5. The Doctor


    The problem is not being scammed. the problem is filing federal lawsuits alleging violation of civil rights on a religious basis. I’ve seen it in relation to kosher food, to haircuts, to clothing [jails don’t usually have budgets for the shatnes lab]. It’s more troublemaking than anything else and it has nothing to do with whether the prison staff believes them or not; the courts are required by law to review every complaint no matter how trivial.

  6. The Doctor

    Depending on the funding and the local politics, jails may be nicer or less nice. I am not aware of any with satellite TV and fitness centers; I think that’s more law-and-order propaganda. Most prisons have libraries [usually big on law books so prisoners can figure out how to sue; the courts have held that there’s no legal way to forbid it].

    Prisoners have gotten very good at finding ways to get charities to provide them things that they could buy themselves such as religious books. Jaysusloving missionaries love to giveout free bibles to “save souls” in prison and Jewish outreach groups have not been far behind…

    I note that none of the prisoners I worked with lacked money to fill prescriptions or buy cigarettes…

  7. matthue Post author

    @The Doctor:

    One thing I’ve always wondered about: Do prisoners have access to a regular prison library? I know there’s a world of difference between the prison horror-stories we hear about squalid conditions and being abused, and the other extreme that we hear about of prisoners with satellite TV and prime fitness rooms…do you know why that happens? And, not to sound ignorant, but why wouldn’t they buy a Tanakh with their own money in the first place?

  8. Jean Oakes

    I know this is an old conversation, but I have to comment on this. Prisons vary greatly from state to state and even county to county, and there’s a big difference between jails and prisons also. Prisons are a lot better than jails.
    My brother was wrongfully imprisoned and is being exonerated (a long process) and I have several friends who are in prisons – one in Washington state, and one in Texas.
    They are horrible places where the basics – tooth paste and shampoo are marked up incredibly high. They pay more for their meds w/o insurance. My one friend with stomach cancer was told one day that he didn’t really need his meds and it was withheld by the guard. He had to file, but it took a long time to sort out. He has a huge debt so a percentage is taken out of any money sent to him for essentials.
    When my brother was in jail he was cold all the time. He told us in one phone call how he loved his hot showers because he got warm for once, the next day they were lukewarm and the rest of the time he was in that jail. Many of the guards enjoy jerking the prisoners around – taking things out of their meals and stealing stuff from their cells when they ‘inspect’ them.
    I always took the hardship stories I heard from my prisoner friends with a grain of salt until my brother spent time in there. Then I found it was worse than I had heard. Our prisoners are treated worse than animals in many of the prisons and even worse in the jails.
    They are incarcerated, some injustly, do they need to be abused and tortured also in order to ‘pay their debt to society’?

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