(page 2 of 5)
For Xhevahir Ajdini, who served three and a half years in Illinois state prisons for selling marijuana, being Jewish on the yard was a matter of keeping his head down and doing his time quietly.
“Of course there were gangs, but I didn’t get involved,” he said. “I read books and hung out with the Jews.”
Ajdini, who came to the United States from Albania as a teenager and speaks seven languages, spent his time taking classes and preparing for his education at Northeastern University, where he currently studies.
But for inmates like Strauss, who served his time in more violent state systems with fewer Jews, quiet and insularity is not an option.
“If you’re going to be openly Jewish, you need to proclaim it boldly,” he said. “Either you’re going to fight and be a man or you’re going to bow down and live with the consequences.”
Gary Friedman, the director of Jewish Prisoner Services International, agreed. “Those who are the most out front about being Jewish get the least hassle,” he said. “We have inmates wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit in the most dangerous prisons in the country, and no one touches them.”
A Jewish inmate who seeks to pass as a non-Jew and is discovered raises the most red flags; the inmate remains different while smacking of dishonesty.
Building trust and being openly Jewish can go a long way, but it is no panacea. The struggle of prisoners to maintain respect among their fellow inmates is always ongoing, and Jews rarely have the numbers by themselves to ensure their safety. In a prison system where almost one in ten inmates is sexually assaulted and violence is rampant, not being backed by a large group of friends means exposure to real danger.
“[If] you have 1,200 inmates you’ll probably be lucky if five or six are Jewish,” said Carl ToerBijins, a former deputy warden in the Arizona Department of Corrections. “There’s strength in numbers. Being Jewish has no advantage.” According to Friedman, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 Jewish prisoners nationally, less than 1% of the total prison population.