James “Sneaky” White Jr. moments after his release from prison, Jan. 21, 2020. (Alix Wall)
James “Sneaky” White Jr. moments after his release from prison, Jan. 21, 2020. (Alix Wall)

Jewish lifer who helped 1,500 inmates earn degrees freed from prison after 38 years

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

James A. “Sneaky” White Jr., a Jewish inmate convicted of murder and imprisoned for nearly four decades, is now a free man. As he stepped out of prison on Jan. 21 to begin his life anew, his many supporters in the Jewish community were rejoicing with him.

Among them was Rabbi Mendel Kessler, a Chabad rabbi who worked as the Jewish chaplain at Ironwood State Prison in Riverside County, where White spent nearly two decades of his life-without-parole sentence.

“Many tried over the years with better connections” to get White released, said Kessler. “It was just what the Almighty wanted, at this time, in this way.”

White, who grew up in a mostly kosher Jewish home, ordered kosher meals in prison and wore a kippah while at Ironwood, gained supporters during his long incarceration by doing charitable work, initiating a college education program for inmates and starting a veterans organization. He also put effort into his own self-improvement.

Chabad Rabbi Yonason Denebeim, who was chaplain at Ironwood before Kessler, said in a 2018 interview that White had “a genuine concern about other inmates, and his desire to assist those who were willing to put in the effort to improve the quality of their lives went far beyond the prison system.”

“I am truly grateful to the Creator and all of His agents that have held fast and true in reaching this joyous day, Baruch HaShem,” Denebeim said.

White gave additional credit for his release to J., which published an article about him on March 22, 2018.

“None of this would have been possible without the J.,” White said, his voice cracking, over his first non-prison meal in 38 years — a vegetarian omelet with an English muffin and tea at the Black Bear Diner in Vacaville, about a mile from the California Medical Facility where he had been incarcerated for the past two years because of his age (he’s approaching 80). “The article the J. did about me is what finally forced the governor to deal with my case.”

A few months after the J. piece was published, an investigator from then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s office visited White, and after a long interview told him that he’d be recommending parole. That August, a number of advocates — former inmates whom he had helped, fellow Vietnam vets and Kessler — spoke on his behalf before the parole board in Sacramento. White was approved for parole later that day. His case was forwarded to the state Supreme Court, and in December 2018 his sentence was commuted by Brown. (His release was delayed another year after a district attorney from Los Angeles County, where the crime was committed, argued against it but did not prevail.)

White was a highly decorated helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, which is where he earned the nickname Sneaky, for sneaking through a field filled with landmines. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when in 1980 he shot and killed the violent ex-husband of his wife, Nancy. White said the man had threatened both of them and molested his own stepdaughter. In 1981 White received his life sentence with no possibility of parole.

It was just what the Almighty wanted, at this time, in this way.

Resigned to that reality, he began community outreach programs, including a Vietnam veterans’ group while in San Quentin, one of several prisons where he spent time. At Ironwood, after reading a study about the recidivism rates for those who leave prison with a college degree, he convinced a warden to help him start the college program. At the time there was only one other program like it in the state, at San Quentin; now nearly every prison in California has adopted the format.

White also created a culture of charity in prison, convincing fellow inmates and guards to donate to local organizations. Over the years, he helped raise several hundred thousand dollars for everything from seeing-eye dogs for veterans to a local girls’ softball team, all through in-prison fundraisers like walkathons and pizza sales.

“I’ve been on this case since 1982, working with nonprofit legal groups and law students through the ’80s and ’90s, into the new century, working alongside veterans who served with him, all of us trying to get Jim released,” added Shad Meshad, founder and director of the Los Angeles-based National Veterans Organization. White “has long been a hero of mine for what he accomplished for others. This is just overwhelming for me.”

At breakfast with a group of friends that included three former inmates White had met inside prison (some of whom he hadn’t seen in 15 to 20 years) and this reporter, he commented on how heavy the silverware was — plastic sporks are used in prison — spoke on a cellphone and posed for selfies for the first time. Using the phrase “when I get out,” he immediately laughed and corrected himself.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."