Prisoner: Pesach is a tougher ticket than Super Bowl

Dyanne Petersen could not attend a Passover seder at the Federal Correctional Institution where she is incarcerated, but she could watch the Super Bowl in uninterrupted comfort.

One must sign up three months in advance to participate in Passover activities, but prison officials revised their normal procedures — a rarity, Petersen said — to accommodate inmates who wanted to watch the Super Bowl last month.

And with only three days' notice.

"I was unable to participate in my first Passover at FCI Dublin in 1994 because I arrived in early March, after the sign-up cutoff date," a chagrined Petersen said last week.

While Jewish inmates were not allowed to observe the two Shabbats that fell during Chanukah in December, football fans were granted "the opportunity to watch the Super Bowl uninterrupted," according to a memo signed by Capt. Norris Hogans of the Office of the Chief of Correctional Services.

FCI Dublin public information officer Dominic Gutierrez said there is no comparison.

"There's a big difference between the two," he said. "One is a sports program, one is a religious activity with food preparation involved. We need to know the number of participants so we can have ample servings ready." For all denominations, that means a period of 60 to 90 days, he added.

But Petersen felt if it was not an irony, it was at least a double standard.

So she changed her religion. She is now a "Footballist."

In a tongue-in-cheek application to the prison chaplain, Petersen requested permission to "change, officially, my religious affiliation designation for the duration of custody in the Bureau of Prisons," convinced by the Super Bowl "of the practical superiority of becoming a Footballist."

Petersen is serving an eight-year sentence for smuggling heroin. Her scheduled release date is 18 months away.

Despite her satirical tone, she said the issue is serious. Her embrace of Jewish observance has meant peace of mind in atoning for her mistakes.

In her application letter to the prison chaplain dated Jan. 31, Petersen wrote: "Extraordinary respect and sensitivity for the scheduled rite of 'kickoff' at 3:20 p.m. was shown by not only moving the count from 4 to 2:45 p.m., but visiting hours were cut short by one full hour, apparently so observant Footballists who were incapable of insulting their visitors by asking them to leave early wouldn't be embarrassed by their devotion."

The Bureau of Prisons prohibits gatherings only when they conflict with the times when the inmates are counted, but "certainly allows for observance," Gutierrez said. "It contributes to running a safe, smooth institution."

Petersen, who was raised as a Christian Messianic, learned a few years ago that her parents were actually Jewish. When her mother became seriously ill, she introduced Petersen to the heritage both parents shed when they came to this country from Europe.

Since then, Petersen has embraced Judaism passionately.

Petersen may become Chassidic upon her release. She crafts hand-made paper and greeting cards; their sale benefits Aleph Institute, a Chabad-run prisoners advocacy organization.

More than 20 Jewish women are incarcerated at the Dublin prison camp. Many gather regularly to light Shabbat candles and study text.

The Dublin facility houses 1,400 prisoners in three programs: the low-security FCI and minimum-security Federal Prison Camp, both for women only, and the Federal Detention Center for men.

Gutierrez allowed that although the inmate count was rescheduled for the Super Bowl, it is not rescheduled for various religious activities or meals — including those of a large Muslim population.

"For six years, I've been attempting with some successes, some failures and constant frustration, to convince the Bureau of Prisons administration and staff to meet the most minimum needs of observant Jews," Petersen concluded in her cryptic letter. "My lengthy stay in the BOP's loving arms could have been much more spiritually and personally rewarding had I simply seen the 'Bud Lite' a little sooner."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.