Channeling books, kosher food to prisons

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The AJCongress first jumped into the prisoners' rights fray last year, following a call from a Jewish prisoner at the San Francisco City and County Jail. The inmate complained that his request for kosher food was not being honored and claimed that prison officials scoffed when asked to provide Jewish reading materials.

The AJCongress passed his complaints on to San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who met with AJCongress officials and the prison's program administrator.

"They were unbelievably forthcoming and ready to make whatever accommodations were necessary," reported AJCongress executive director Tracy Salkowitz.

The prison's first step was investigating inmates' requests for kosher food: Some of these requests had come from prisoners who simply wanted a better meal.

Prison officials "have no obligation to give non-Jews kosher food," Salkowitz pointed out.

To help verify requests, AJCongress board member Rabbi Jeffery Silberman volunteered to talk with prisoners — either by phone or in person — about their Jewish background and observance.

The AJCongress then helped the jail write a contract for "para-chaplains" — individuals who are trained in chaplains' duties but are not members of the clergy. The contract stipulates that para-chaplains will be respectful of inmates' religious affiliation and not overzealous in their approach.

Soon after that work had been completed, calls from Jewish and non-Jewish inmates around the state began flowing in to the AJCongress. Suddenly, the organization found itself intervening on behalf of not just one prisoner, but several.

"It's been fascinating to see how word of mouth works," Salkowitz said. "It goes from prisoner to prisoner."

In some cases, the organization acts as a conduit, forwarding complaints regarding religious freedom in jails to the appropriate station. Sometimes, however, the organization takes care of business itself.

Responding to the specific need for Jewish materials in prisons, for example, the AJCongress asked Northern California rabbis to donate surplus Jewish books. To date, more than 1,500 books have been disseminated to prisons throughout California.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.