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One former Illinois prisoner, who asked that his name not be used, said he was singled out by staff for being Jewish. While his fellow inmates could visit the Christian chaplain in the chapel, he could only see the rabbi in the visiting room, after being strip-searched.
Another ex-inmate from Illinois, who also wished to remain anonymous, was forbidden to wear a yarmulke except in his bunk, and waited two years to be allowed occasional access to phylacteries in the chaplain’s office.
Sometimes prison staff aren’t being malicious, but simply have a difficult time knowing what inmates are entitled to between Jews, Hebrew Israelites, Messianic Jews and a host of religious classes jostling for a niche.
“The policy itself is written so vaguely [that it] leave[s] discretion up to senior chaplains who often don’t know what people are entitled to,” said ToerBijns, the former deputy warden. This ignorance sometimes shows inmates the absurd side of correctional policy.
“They sent us a festival lunch on Yom Kippur,” said Joseph. “When you’re in prison, you don’t know why things happen.”
But not all staff decisions are so benign.
“Rural prisons have open anti-Semitism, even by staff,” said Rabbi Binyomin Scheiman, a Chabad rabbi who is the director of the Hinda Institute, an Illinois group that supports Jewish prisoners. “An employee I discovered was Jewish found [a copy of] Mein Kampf on his desk placed by other employees.”
Still, in Scheiman’s overall assessment he found this example an outlier. “By and large, [staff] are good… It’s not really dangerous for Jewish men in the state.”
Jewish women face different challenges in state prison, according to Rabbi Moshe Halfon, the Jewish chaplain at the California Institution for Women, a facility located in Chino, Calif. for inmates of all custody levels.