The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is investigating a Jewish inmate’s claims of religious discrimination at the Belmont Correctional Institution in St. Clairsville, according to the ODRC’s written response to a recent Chronicle inquiry.
The prisoner, Paul Marcel-Rene, accused the Belmont prison’s chaplain of a host of discriminatory practices against Jews, including disposing of religious objects sent to the prison by outside organizations for the use of Jewish prisoners, telling prisoners that the study of Hebrew is evil and denying Jewish prisoners access to matzah and grape juice donated for their religious use, while diverting those goods for Christian use. His complaints were catalogued in a letter sent to scores of Jewish institutions, civil rights organizations, governmental offices and media outlets.
Marcel-Rene’s letter also accused Belmont’s chaplain of refusing to issue passes for Jewish prisoners to visit with a rabbi who comes every few weeks to the facility, and denying the inmates the opportunity for prayer. The Chronicle received a copy of the letter last month.
“DRC’s Religious Services Administrator has been in discussion with the leadership of both the institution and the Aleph Institute PA Office,” wrote Grant Doepel, deputy communications chief at the ODRC, in an email that referenced the Pittsburgh-based Northeast branch of the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that caters to the needs of Jewish prisoners and their families. “These discussions have centered on determining if there is a misunderstanding related to religious practices that we can easily resolve or some other underlying factors in play. At this time, we are looking at an opportunity to clarify for all involved our attempts to provide religious accommodation for those currently in prison.”
As to Marcel-Rene’s claims that Jewish prisoners are denied the opportunity to worship and study Hebrew, Doepel wrote: “This would only be prohibited if the study [was] conducted in a group without an approved religious provider supervising.
“The warden and other leaders at the institution are very supportive of our efforts to ensure the religious practices of the men under their supervision,” Doepel continued. “Aside from receiving a letter from the facility, our religious services administrator has not received any information alleging that the men at the Belmont Correctional Institution were being prevented from participating in the practice of their faith. Department policy recognizes the right of every individual to believe as they choose and practice their faith as either a solitary practitioner or in congregate activity with the provision that there is an appropriate religious service provider available to supervise the activity.”
Doepel said that he did not have information regarding the alleged diversion of donated matzah and grape juice to Christian use.
“Belmont Correctional Institution is fortunate to have a volunteer rabbi, Mr. Sam Posin, who is able provide guidance relative to the practice of Judaism within the correctional environment,” Doepel wrote. “Our religious services administrator has not received any indication from Rabbi Posin or anyone stating that there were issues pertaining to these matters at Belmont. Our agency has welcomed visiting rabbis from the Aleph Institute over the years. We welcome the visits and certainly value the contributions made by Aleph and all of our religious services volunteer providers.”
Doepel did not respond to a Chronicle question of whether the Belmont chaplain had been evangelizing to Jews, or whether or not religious items donated to Jewish prisoners had been withheld. He did, however, recite that it is the policy of the prison to allow items such as kippah, tallit, tefillin, and prayer books for the use of inmates.
“Even though some items are permissible per policy, there are instances where there may be a security/safety concern relative to a specific item i.e. the length of the item; the material it is made from; or the source of the item (who sent it in) are some examples. In these instances, items may be withheld and not introduced into the environment,” Doepel wrote.
“As an agency, we take all matters of this kind very seriously,” Doepel continued. “Our religious services administrator has spoken with the warden of the institution and Rabbi Vogel from the Aleph Institute. We have agreed to monitor the situation closely and speak again. At this time these complaints have not been verified.”
Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute, Northeast Regional Headquarters, is optimistic that the matters will be resolved appropriately.
“They, [the ODRC], have contacted me, and I am working with them on this,” Vogel said. “I’m comfortable there will be a good resolution on all the issues.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.