Jewish prisoners at Belmont Correctional Institution in St. Clairsville, Ohio, are concerned they may be denied the food they need to celebrate Passover, but Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute’s North East Region, is confident that the seder plates, matzah, grape juice and other items his organization provides will end up in the hands of those who need them.
The Chronicle has received letters from three inmates at Belmont, complaining of alleged various discriminatory treatment at the facility, including anti-Semitic speech on the part of the prison’s chaplain, Jeffery Berger, the refusal to issue passes required for Jewish holiday participation and being forbidden to study Hebrew.
“For Passover 5776 (2016), Chaplain Berger tried to deny kosher for Passover meals even for the Jewish inmates already receiving daily kosher meals,” wrote inmate Paul Marcel-Rene in a letter to the Chronicle. “Only a last minute intervention prevented his attempt.”
Marcel-Rene further stated in his letter that none of the Jewish inmates’ grievances about claimed religious discrimination filed through the Department of Corrections’ formal appeals channel has effected a change in the behavior of Berger and that “no one from ODRC [Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction] Religious Services has contacted me or any other Jewish inmate at Belmont Correctional Institute regarding these ongoing issues.”
Weighing the needs of inmates against prison regulations and security concerns is often a “balancing act,” according to Vogel.
“The story at Belmont is the story in every prison in the United States,” he said. “There is a trusted government official who at the very least is not sensitive to the Jewish inmates’ needs.”
On the other hand, he said, sometimes “Jewish prisoners are trying to maximize what they need and think that they deserve.”
Vogel stressed the pivotal role religion can play in the life of an inmate, who generally is not provided with other avenues toward rehabilitation while incarcerated. Over the years, though, religious outreach has become more challenging.
“The days of bringing bagels and lox and cream cheese into prison are over,” Vogel said, recalling the days 26 years ago when such a practice was permitted and drew “full attendance” from the Jewish prisoners.
“Passover is a challenge because [requests] have to go through the state,” Vogel explained. Last October, the Aleph Institute began the process of ordering Passover items from New York for all the institutions in its territory. The items are heavily subsidized by Aleph.
In addition to the matzah, shmurah matzah, grape juice, gefilte fish, horseradish and macaroons, Aleph also orders full kosher for Passover meals that the prisoners can buy for $4 each.
Vogel is certain that the inmates at Belmont will not be denied the Passover items.
“We don’t anticipate any problems this year,” he said, adding that he is planning to speak with Mike Davis, religious services administrator at the ODRC, to discuss matters further.
A spokesperson for Belmont was vague when asked whether the Jewish inmates would receive the Passover items. “In regards to any items donated, the religious service provider is expected to provide oversight on the distribution of donated items,” wrote Grant Doepel, deputy communications chief of the ODRC, in an email.
Vogel is working on addressing the other concerns of the Jewish inmates at Belmont, but knows that the issues are often complicated.
“There can be many things at play,” cautioned Vogel. “Is it a personality issue, or has it become a ‘me against you’ issue?
“My main goal is that they get their Passover food and celebrate,” Vogel said. “And we are assured they will get it. I don’t believe anyone will violate it. We haven’t had that problem.”
Jewish inmates at other prisons across the country have also complained about not receiving the goods they need to observe the holidays, according to Rabbi Menachem Katz, the national Aleph Institute’s director of military and prison outreach.
“This is not the first time I’ve heard this claim,” Katz said, noting that there are often inmates of other religions that celebrate Passover, including Messianic Jews, and sometimes there is “sleight of hand” at work through which provisions intended for Jewish prisoners get diverted to others.
“It gets complicated,” he said. “We are not there on the ground, and we lose control once the box leaves our office. When we get complaints, we address them.”
Neither Berger nor Davis were available for comment.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.