Prison guard settles 1 of 2 suits fighting anti-Semitism

The Jewish former San Quentin prison guard, who claims colleagues and overseers fostered an anti-Semitic environment, has reached a settlement on one of his lawsuits but still hopes to teach the prison system a lesson with another.

Alan Ashenfarb, who says fellow guards humiliated him over the course of nearly nine years with repeated nasty comments and inappropriate jokes about subjects such as his heritage, last name and the shape of his nose, settled out of court Jan. 8 for a scant $1,500 in his workers' compensation suit.

Yet Ashenfarb and his lawyer maintained that the modest settlement has no bearing on his pending lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections in Marin County Superior Court, which he filed in 2000.

"State law here says that in order to get any kind of workers' compensation you have to prove you've been disabled — which is not a good way of dealing with anti-Semitism," said Ashenfarb's lawyer, Stanley Hilton.

Ashenfarb, in fact, is not disabled and transferred in recent months from San Quentin to California State Prison Sacramento, better known as New Folsom.

In the pending suit, however, Hilton said, "I think we can get six figures. How high the six figures go really depends on how a jury and trial will do it. [The CDC] previously indicated they might be willing to go close to $100,000."

The attorney added that he and the CDC have a settlement conference scheduled for March 14. There is no trial date at this time.

Ashenfarb presumably won't turn down a six-figure settlement, but he said the most important thing is ensuring the CDC takes his complaint seriously, institutes some sort of educational program regarding anti-Semitism and punishes anti-Semitic behavior.

"My intention is to make them change their way of thinking," said Ashenfarb, who lives in Sacramento with his wife and son.

"The Department of Corrections puts you through an academy and supplies on-the-job training and pushes out all of these policies and procedures and comes out with cute statements like 'zero tolerance.' A lot of it is just lip talk. It sounds good, it looks good and it gives the impression that they're really concerned with not having a discriminatory environment. I think I can pretty clearly say through my situation and a lot of other situations that are occurring, this is not the case."

In addition to unwelcome jokes and suggestions, Ashenfarb claims Nazi graffiti showed up around the prison, and says he received a swastika in his work mailbox. One of a handful of Jewish guards out of a force exceeding 800, Ashenfarb also claims a prison cook once physically assaulted him, shouting he wouldn't take orders from "a Jew from New York." Ashenfarb said his complaints about colleagues' anti-Semitism went unanswered.

Twice, Ashenfarb turned down settlement offers from the CDC. One would merely have transferred him to New Folsom — which he has since done on his own. Another would have awarded him $10,000.

"They just wanted to get rid of this. The $10,000 is just basically to shut me up while they go about their business. That's not making a change in light of the laws that were broken by the people I worked with," said Ashenfarb, who noted that work conditions have been good at New Folsom.

"Really, the only way I can make a change, in my personal opinion, is by hitting them as hard as I possibly can."

A former Marine, the 46-year-old, Brooklyn-born Ashenfarb worked a number of jobs throughout the 1980s and early '90s before becoming a prison guard in 1993.

"I think if I would have known the amount of — I'll use the term ignorance — I've had to deal with at times, with not so much from the inmates [but] my own people, I'm not so sure I'd have gone this route," he said.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.