In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates are allowed to utilize a highly monitored email system called Corrlinks to communicate with family and friends. I currently correspond with around 30 Jewish inmates around the country through Corrlinks.
This past week I received several emails from men at an institution in the Florida panhandle. Admittedly drama is part and parcel of the microcosm of a penal institution. Things are magnified and over-dramatized at times. It is an “us versus them” mentality that often skews the reality of a particular situation. Conversely, inmate abuse and neglect are also a reality and one that does not get much attention because the general attitude of the public is, “They have to be guilty if they are in prison and they deserve whatever happens to them.” That assertion is far from accurate and is demonstrative of an attitude that carries over into many other areas of society, including our treatment of the poor, the mentally ill (often incarcerated), and so many other strata of society who do not pass the litmus test of the ones who have set themselves up as judge and jury of people they find offensive or unacceptable.
Lest I be accused of being a bleeding heart liberal, the justice system is needful. Crime must be punished. Nevertheless, prison should not be a place where guards who spent their formative years being bullied take out their angry aggressions on individuals placed in their custody.
There are so many issues to discuss–about which I have written in the past and will in the future. Lest I digress any further, I will get back on track and share the musings on my mind.
In the emails received, the stories were about the same. A Jewish inmate at Marianna FCI who is very close to going home was placed in confinement after a disagreement with staff during a routine cell shakedown. These things happen. The best course in dealing with abusive staff is to keep your mouth shut and let the matter conclude without hassles. It seems this staff member has a deep-seated issue with inmates who actively practice any type of religion. Sounds like an easy out to blame religious bigotry and sometimes it is. In this situation the allegation is spot on.
The inmate is a few months from freedom. He is incarcerated for Federal Income Tax offenses (a whole other topic of selective and unfair prosecution practices). This man’s mother is in hospice and not expected to live much longer. He’s a good man who made some bad choices.
I have dealt with this man on an almost daily basis and watched him ascend spiritually. He is as observant as anyone in his current situation can be. The rub of this whole situation is the officer throwing this man’s Chumash, Tallit, and other items in the floor and walking over them. If that were all the officer has done, it would be enough to request discipline action against him. Yet the story doesn’t end there.
The inmate I am writing about wraps Tefillin. There are very specific rules concerning the handling of Tefillin by correctional officers just as there are about special items used in practice by those of other religions. This officer broke the Tefillin open, crumbled up the verses inside and threw them on the floor. Irrespective of how one feels about individuals who are incarcerated, the actions of the officer are wrong and he should be disciplined.
Tefillin is put on the arm facing the heart and on the head (the seat of reason), thus bringing peace and harmony between the two great forces in human life—emotion and reason. I imagine the peace and harmony my friend found from the ritual of wrapping Tefillin kept him from reacting in a manner that could have resulted in very serious consequences. My heart is filled with naches at the growth and spiritual maturity of my friend and our fellow Jew.
Responsive to the emails I received, I reached out to a rabbi I know to be very connected with the system; and I also reached out to a friend who put me in touch with the Inspector Generals Office. Between our mutual efforts, our fellow Jew was returned to general population. Since his release from confinement, he is being subjected to harassment. We are addressing this situation also. In the course of communication with the Inspector Generals Office, it was revealed that the officer involved has a history of such behavior and yet he is still employed. We have been assured an investigation is under way and action will be taken. We will stay on top of the situation. For the man we are helping, there are 1,000’s upon 1,000’s with no voice. That is very troubling.
In response to musings such as this I generally receive a blow back of negativity. To those, I offer wisdom from Elie Weisel:
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
The battles you are chosen to fight are most likely not the same as mine. However, injustice is wrong no matter the circumstances and silence is never, ever the answer. May we speak up and speak out when faced with injustice, and may we be empowered to help those who cannot help themselves.