Guard sues San Quentin over alleged anti-Semitism

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A corrections officer at San Quentin filed federal charges of anti-Semitism against the California Department of Corrections and the state prison last week.

Alan Ashenfarb, 43, a prison guard since January 1994, said he has been the victim of on-the-job religious discrimination dating back to January of 1995. Despite filing two initial complaints, the guard also said he has “not heard one word from the San Quentin administration on these issues.”

In a telephone interview last week from his home in Sacramento, Ashenfarb described a series of “embarrassing and demeaning” situations, ranging from anti-Jewish jokes to neo-Nazi and SS graffiti around the prison.

The guard charges that his co-workers have asked him offensive questions on such topics as the size of his nose and on the derivation of his last name. After buying a car, Ashenfarb said he was asked if he had to “‘Jew’ [the car dealer] down.” He has also overheard other officers refer to prisoners as “Hebrew slaves.”

In addition to co-workers, the complainant said he has encountered problems with administrators, alleging they have told anti-Jewish jokes despite his requests that they stop.

“Out of the clear blue sky my sergeant asked me, ‘How do you get 96 Jews in a Volkswagen?’ and I had to tell him two times not to go there.

“The punch line is ‘You put 96 Jews in an ashtray.’ I’d be a liar if I said at times I don’t joke around with my co-workers, but I would never make it a personal attack and I wouldn’t joke about someone’s ethnicity or beliefs,” Ashenfarb explained.

“That’s not a joke like, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?'”

The suit, filed on May 2, accuses named officers, sergeants and other agents and CDC employees of engaging in a “constant pattern of anti-Semitic speaking and sloganeering in the presence of inmates and among themselves, all of which have fostered an anti-Semitic environment.”

It also states: “The plaintiff has suffered emotional distress, pain and suffering and other damages…he has sustained severe injuries to his health, strength and activity and has lost income.”

Ashenfarb asserts he filed complaints with the prison administration twice, but gave up after receiving “absolutely no response from San Quentin at all.” The first instance was in regard to a comment from a co-worker in the kitchen, where Ashenfarb works on the loading dock.

According to Ashenfarb, the civilian cook told an inmate, “I don’t take any orders from some Jew from New York.”

“Not only did he make this inflammatory comment but he made it in front of a prisoner,” he remarked. “The inmate later asked me, Are you really a Jew?’ It made me feel like an alien.”

The second incident involved another civilian cook, who Ashenfarb alleges “physically assaulted, battered and pushed” him.

Ashenfarb initially thought the administration’s unwillingness to intervene was a way of “pushing [such incidents] off to the side” in the hopes that the problem “will go away.” But he later discovered on his own that the cook who made the inflammatory remarks had actually been warned by supervisors for his behavior.

However, in both instances, Ashenfarb said that San Quentin made no effort to make him aware of any disciplinary actions against the cook.

“Communication had failed. If this had been sexual harassment complaints or [anti-black] remarks they would have [jumped on it].”

Ashenfarb’s attorney, Stanley Hilton, agreed. He said the prison treats anti-Semitism as a “gentleman’s game” or a “mild sort of battering,” in part because of the perception that “Jews are rich. That’s much different than anti-black movements, for instance, which treat African-Americans as sub-human.”

In prison, there is a “general acceptance of anti-Semitic jokes and statements,” Hilton added. “The CDC doesn’t really do anything to punish [this behavior]. They create a climate where it is sanctioned and encouraged.”

Ashenfarb believes his suit against the CDC is the first instance of a guard suing a state prison authority over religious discrimination in the workplace.

Jeanie Esajian, spokeswoman for the CDC, said in the past, prison inmates have challenged their right to religious freedom. However, she said she is unaware of any claims similar to those of Ashenfarb. Because of “pending litigation,” Esajian would not comment on Ashenfarb’s specific charges.

As of press time, Lt. Patricia Blanson, spokeswoman for San Quentin, said neither the prison nor the CDC had been served.

“I don’t have any information,” Blanson said. “But I wouldn’t be able to render any information until the courts had made a decision or I had reviewed the case.”

In his suit, Ashenfarb is seeking monetary damages, so that “the people who inflicted this frustration and disrespect towards me and my religion” are “held accountable.” He is also asking the prison to change its response to anti-Semitic behavior and actions, asking that the department implement better diversity training.

“People should not be treated any different because of their religion,” Ashenfarb explained. “They should be treated based on their job performance.”

The case is scheduled for hearing on Sept. 5 at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Aleza Goldsmith

Aleza Goldsmith is a former J. staff writer.