San Quentin guard turns down state settlement offer

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A San Quentin prison guard whose anti-Semitism charges against the prison and California Department of Corrections are pending has turned down an offer from the state.

In the settlement offer, the guard, Alan Ashenfarb, was given the option of transferring to Folsom State Prison if he dropped his lawsuit.

Ashenfarb, 44, who has worked as a corrections officer at San Quentin since January 1994, declined the proposition from the state attorney general's office, calling it "a slap in the face."

"I could not believe that's all, at this time, that they offered," said Ashenfarb, who received the proposal earlier this month. "I feel this is disrespectful towards both my attorney and myself."

Ashenfarb's attorney, Stanley Hilton, agreed and said the state's offer to transfer the guard may indicate a belief that the case has no merit.

"Their point of view is that it does not matter" that Ashenfarb has suffered with anti-Semitism, he said. "They feel he hasn't been damaged since he is still there working."

But Hilton believes this assumption is wrong. Anti-Semitism in the workplace "can affect a person's psyche," he said. "Thoughts and words today can become violence tomorrow. Unfortunately, people don't take it seriously until it becomes violence."

Deputy attorney general Jerry Curtis did not return phone calls as of press time.

Ashenfarb's 16-month-old suit alleges that he has been subjected to on-the-job anti-Semitism dating back to January 1995.

In his suit, he 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."

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."

Ashenfarb is seeking monetary damages but said he is unsure if he would accept a settlement offering money, since he felt it would not adequately punish those responsible for fostering the bigoted prison climate. He would like to see the prison change its response to anti-Semitic behavior and actions, requesting that the department implement better diversity training.

"This whole thing is to stress a point, in general, not just to help myself," he said. "I still feel overall racial and religious discrimination is prevalent throughout the system, and the only way to bring it to the forefront is through my suit.

"It's not a Jewish issue," he added. "The policy for dealing with discrimination in the prison is weak; it's more lip service than actual policy. I want to stress this isn't going to be tolerated, period. To settle would take away some of that thunder."

According to policy, the prison and CDC will not comment on pending litigation.

Ashenfarb filed his suit in May 2000. At that time he described a series of "embarrassing and demeaning" situations ranging from anti-Jewish jokes to neo-Nazi and SS graffiti around the prison.

He said co-workers had asked him offensive questions on such topics as the size of his nose and on the derivation of his last name, sometimes in front of the prisoners. He also said he was "physically assaulted, battered and pushed" by a civilian cook, because he is Jewish.

Despite filing two complaints, Ashenfarb said he had "not heard one word from the San Quentin administration on these issues."

Since then, Ashenfarb said he has received an outpouring of support from prisoners and co-workers.

"For the most part I'm just going about my business," he said, "but a lot of people ask me if the lawsuit is continuing, and a lot of people are supportive and wish me luck."

On the other hand, he also "gets vibrations" that some working in the prison are "not thrilled about the negative publicity."

In June 2000, those "vibrations" were manifested when Ashenfarb said he found a black swastika drawn on an 11-by-14-inch piece of paper in his work mailbox.

Then, in August 2000 he feared that a small fire at his Sacramento home was "a scare tactic" related to the suit.

After an investigation by the Sacramento Fire Department, it was determined to be an accident caused by neighborhood kids who were playing with matches.