Elevating Life Inside America's Prisons

Elevating Life Inside America's Prisons

by Rena Greenberg - Miami, Florida

February 7, 2016

As the iron cell door clanged shut behind her, 37-year-old Marcia Singer* felt herself going numb. Staring down at her prison- issue jumpsuit, she thought of her two young children separated from her by the grey walls that would confine her for the next several years. Her world turned black as she felt herself sinking into the darkness.

Today she shudders when she recalls those first days in the Florida State penitentiary, tormented by thoughts about her children suffering and her helplessness to do anything about it. With their mom locked up, they would go to live with her ex-husband in a single room in the back of a small house that had no air conditioner to relieve them from Florida’s oppressive heat. There’d be no money, and very little food for her children. Her desperation deepened.

Marcia grew up in a middle-class Jewish home, but a proclivity for making ruinous life choices alienated her from the rest of her family. The “bad kid” who dropped out of school in a family where everyone else were doctors, Marcia, whose parents had died some years earlier, was since excluded by relatives from events like the annual Passover Seder. Shunned by family and community she drifted away, eventually marrying a Jamaican man, the father of her two children, 11 and 15 at the time of her incarceration.

The marriage was troubled and ultimately disintegrated. As a single mom living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, Marcia struggled to make ends meet, finally working her way up to become a manager at a large home and garden retailer. In that position, she was authorized to mark down store items on a regular basis. As she tells it, after marking down a certain item that was purchased by a friend, she was accused by store management of colluding with the customer and fired for misconduct. The retail chain filed charges against her.

With no money to hire an attorney, Marcia didn’t stand a chance in court. She accepted a probation plea deal with the court, though she insists that she never acted illegally. Her troubles piled on: a few months later, while still on probation, she agreed to pick up her son’s friend and drive him home. Marcia says she was unaware that she was being used as the getaway car by her young passenger who was on the run after committing a robbery. Once again, she found herself in court, this time charged as an accessory to a crime and in violation of her probation. She was sentenced to three years.

A first time offender navigating the criminal justice system on her own, Marcia desperately tried to find some semblance of familiarity in the cold and unforgiving corrections institution. There was none. Her anxiety about being separated from her children put a crushing weight on her. With no one on the outside to drive her children to the facility during visiting hours, more than a year would pass during which she would not see them. The weekly letters from her 15-year-old daughter, Abigail, who shared her misery compounded Marcia’s suffering.

Judaism Behind Bars

Marcia is one of approximately 4,000 Jewish inmates in the United States, comprising less than 1% of the total prison population. Most of the relatively small demographic is male, and a majority are serving time for white-collar crimes such as fraud and tax evasion. Others got into trouble with the law over drugs or alcohol addiction. Prison life is not easy on Jews seeking to practice; honoring holiday traditions or the ability to participate in Shabbat services will often require working through difficult bureaucracy. Many are serving their time in hostile environments where the Jewish population is usually the smallest denomination and vulnerable to anti-Semitic activity.

Marcia’s lack of affiliation prior to her incarceration is not unusual: many Jewish prisoners have no real connection with a religious community before they get into trouble. Rabbi Benny Lew, who works for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says that it is natural for inmates to get involved with Judaism in the prison system, where a social structure of racial cliques becomes a survival mechanism.

Many Jews gain a totally new appreciation for their Judaism from a spiritual and communal perspective. “For those who come from traditional Jewish backgrounds it’s a very impoverished Jewish life,” Lew says, “but for others, prison becomes the vehicle through which they practice religious tradition with newfound meaning, like keeping kosher and celebrating holidays.”

Though she never thought much about her faith, Marcia instinctively ticked off “Jewish” on her prison admission form. She was one of eight Jewish inmates out of a total of 755 women when she entered prison. One of her fellow Jewish “girls” serving a life-sentence took Marcia under her wing, showing her the ropes. “Janey’s been there forever and she does a lot in the prison,” Marcia says.

The connection was critical. “Usually you have to get on a waiting list to get into school there, but Janey put me on the top of the waiting list and pushed me to do school.” As more Jews entered the prison during her time—all 17 of them banded together to become a mini-family, helping each other endure the long days, and even longer nights, away from their loved ones.

Soon Marcia signed up for her prison’s kosher food plan and actively sought out opportunities to learn more about her faith. “I was searching for something to hold onto,” she admits. “As an adult, it was the first time I connected with my Judaism.”

Unlike Marcia, Harvey Main had been connected with his local Chabad House, but he never really made space for spirituality. When the now 64-year-old went to prison in 2008, he used the sudden pause in his normal life to introspect, eventually immersing himself in the opportunities for Jewish learning and Jewish services that were offered.

“From the moment I got there, I took upon myself to study and immerse myself in Torah,” he says. As an affiliated Jew, he had some familiarity with his traditions, and chose to use his five-year prison term to expand his knowledge and understanding of his faith. An avid reader, he took advantage of “a very good Jewish library,” studying everything he could to help him become a better person. More than everything, he says, the Jewish camaraderie was critical to him, and he became part of a community with 15-20 of his fellow Jewish inmates giving him some semblance of his former life.

“Being separated from family is the most difficult thing, making the companionship of other guys I learned to count on, and building our own community while we were away from home vital, possibly even transformative.” He remembers one particular holiday in prison, sitting in a Sukkah that Chabad volunteers had built, and celebrating the Jewish holiday surrounded by fellow Jews. “I felt transported out of prison during those moments.”


*Some names and identifying details of the inmates mentioned in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.  

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