Joseph was lying on his bunk, looking at the Hebrew blessings he’d hung on the wall to celebrate his first Hanukah in prison when his new, neo-Nazi cellmate was brought in.
The man sported a large swastika tattoo on one arm, with Adolf Hitler’s face drawn in the center. “Skinhead” was tattooed across his chest in five-inch letters.
As the man glanced at the Hebrew posters and then went into the bathroom to remove some contraband, Joseph knew he had to act quickly.
“Hi, I’m [Joseph], I’m Jewish, and I don’t think we’re going to have a problem,” Joseph recalled telling the new cellmate when he returned. “He said, ‘I’m Bubba, and I don’t think we’re going to have a problem either.’”
Later, Joseph learned that the man, who’d led a gang of skinheads in prison, had beat up Jews and “other non-whites” to within an inch of their lives.
Joseph, who asked that the Forward use only his middle name, had later run-ins with anti-Semites that went less happily during his three-year stint in California’s state prison system. As his circle of Jewish friends grew and they became a presence on the prison yard, both the Protestant chaplain and the leader of the black Muslim inmates became very aggressive.
At one point the two of them threatened Joseph’s life after inviting him into the chapel to talk. On Yom Kippur, when it seemed that they might carry out their threat, only the intervention of a powerful Muslim friend on the yard saved Joseph from a severe beating.
Joseph’s experiences illustrate a paradox of Jewish life in many of our nation’s state prisons: anti-Semitism is endemic, but personal relationships often transcend it.
In prison trust is one of the scarcest commodities. Anything that marks an inmate as different is ground for suspicion. In many parts of the country inmates consequently stick together by race and religion, splintering into dozens of affiliation groups. Inmates of the same race spend most of their time in de facto segregation, eating, sleeping, and hanging out only with each other.
“Our prisons have been thoroughly racialized,” said Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report.
Being Jewish is a mark of difference to most non-Jews, and is viewed as a major point against the inmate so labeled, according to interviews with Jewish ex-inmates. But even where anti-Semitism is extreme, Jews can often gain respect and safety by “keeping face,” as one former inmate put it — being honest with other prisoners, and refusing kowtow to others. Being as good as your word and standing up for yourself is the path to safety through friendship in the deeply violent and uncertain world of prison.
“Being Jewish… automatically means you need to be on the defense per se, because you’re a minority,” said Steven Strauss, who grew up Orthodox and spent most of the last 19 years in prisons in Washington and Alaska.