Pentateuchs for Prisoners

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.

Posted on August 26, 2008

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