San Quentin guard finds swastika in his work mailbox

A San Quentin State Prison corrections officer who had previously filed a lawsuit charging anti-Semitism said he found a swastika in his employee mailbox this week.

Alan Ashenfarb, 43, has had federal charges of anti-Semitism pending against San Quentin and the California Department of Corrections since May 2.

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

Ashenfarb said he arrived at work early Saturday morning and checked his mailbox, which is used for internal memos and messages.

Inside he said he found and opened a legal-sized envelope addressed to him and was “shocked” to discover a black swastika drawn on an 11-by-14-inch piece of paper.

Because he found it in his employee mailbox and because it was inserted in the same brand of envelope used by the prison, Ashenfarb said the swastika most likely came from an employee.

However, he added, “It’s not out of the question for an inmate to get access to an envelope.”

Immediately after the discovery, Ashenfarb said he alerted the lieutenant on duty and left him the original copy of the swastika.

As of Monday, acting warden Jeanne Woodford had instituted an investigation to determine the swastika’s source.

“The investigation is done in accordance with the California prisons’ policy of zero tolerance for ethnic and racial discrimination,” CDC spokeswoman Jeanie Esajian said.

Ashenfarb, however, said neither the CDC nor San Quentin abides by or enforces a zero-tolerance policy. He has been instructed by his attorney Stanley Hilton to contact the FBI.

Ashenfarb, who joined the prison as a guard in January 1994, alleges that he is the victim of on-the-job anti-Semitism dating back to January 1995.

Despite filing two initial complaints, Ashenfarb said he had “not heard one word from San Quentin administration on these issues” prior to filing the suit.

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

Ashenfarb’s suit accuses named officers, sergeants, 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.”

Those named in Ashenfarb’s lawsuit were served on May 26.

The suit 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.”

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

He said his co-workers have asked offensive questions on topics such as the size of his nose and the derivation of his last name. Also, he has overheard them refer to prisoners as “Hebrew slaves.”

“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,” he said.

Esajian would not comment on the CDC’s reaction, as it is the policy of the state prison system not to comment on “pending litigation.”

Ashenfarb said the incident Saturday is the first anonymous assault directed towards him.

“Now they’re getting away from the verbal and snide remarks by using lame backdoor tactics,” he said. “They’re trying to intimidate me.”

Ashenfarb is currently seeking the assistance of the Anti-Defamation League as well from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who lives in Greenbrae.

“This thing is just snowballing,” he said. “I need some help.”

Karen Zatz, associate director of ADL’s Central Pacific Region office in San Francisco, said the ADL is “currently considering if we’re going to have a role in this.”

Aleza Goldsmith

Aleza Goldsmith is a former J. staff writer.