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A Jewish Women’s Community-Behind Bars

The rabbi who took us there said that the Jewish men prisoners across the road had been incredulous. “What are nice Jewish girls doing in a place like that?”

The place is the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the only state prison for women in New York.

The Jewish women are nice.

And what they’re doing there is time. Four of the seven Jewish women at Bedford (out of a prison population of 450) are serving sentences as first-time offenders under Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s Draconian 1973 drug laws. These laws stipulate that anyone convicted of selling illicit drugs, or possessing them with intent to sell, must be given a life sentence, even first offenders. Prison sentences stipulate minimum and maximum terms the prisoner must serve before being paroled. Under these drug laws, the minimums are stiff sentences of six, seven, 15 and 25 years. the ones with addiction issues must be sent to drug rehab new york.

What these laws mean is that a first offender has to serve at least the minimum segment of the life sentence before being eligible for parole, or even home visits. If the prisoner is released after the minimum sentence has been served (this depends on the judgement of the Parole Board), she still must remain on parole for the rest of her life. (By contrast, under Federal law, similar offenses are punishable by imprisonment or probation or a fine.)

The four Jewish women in Bedford on drug charges are there because of an involvement with cocaine. Of the other three, one is in on a homicide charge, another for conspiracy to commit murder and a third for fraud (passing a bad $500 check).

Almost all the Jewish women we met expressed their Jewish identity openly, and claimed to feel a sense of kinship with one another that helps to make their time in prison a bit more bearable. They see themselves as a double minority in the prison: white and non-Christian. As Jews, they face almost certain anti-Semitism from many other prisoners, which at its mildest takes the form of gross misinformation about Jews and Judaism. They must also cope with being seen as an elite and moneyed white group by the majority of the prisoners, who are black. Anti-Semitism in another form.

Even in this prison, there’s a Jewish women’s community. Although only two of the women live on the same floor, they can all meet (as many of them as want to ) as a craft/discussion group one morning a week. Three women from the Bet Torah Congregation in neighboring Mt. Kisco provide materials and instruction for the crafts program (the prisoners’ own choice of activity—probably selected, as Judy Goldberg, one of the volunteers, suggests, because it gives the women a chance to talk while working with their hands). The motivating force behind the involvement of the local women was Judy Proietti, who has been active in various volunteer programs at Bedford for the past seven years and knows the long-term prisoners well.

At the same time as the women meet as a group, individual residents are free to meet with the Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Ya’acov Rone of Bet Torah, for private conversations or counselling. Rabbi Rone also goes to Bedford to help celebrate most Jewish holidays. He is not there for Shabbat, but makes candles available for those who want to come into the prison chaplain’s office on Friday afternoons to light them. He also provides memorial candles. The cantor from Bet Torah now goes to Bedford to hold a weekly evening discussion of Jewish traditions.

According to the rabbi, there was no regular programming for Jewish women prisoners until three or four years ago. At that time Jewish women at Bedford complained to the previous Jewish chaplain that there were visits and programs organized by Baptists, Catholics and even Suni Muslims, but nothing for the Jews beyond token services on major holidays. Now, Rabbi Rone reports, the women do not feel so utterly abandoned by the Jewish community.

Our talks with the Jewish women at Bedford took place over a two-month period late in the spring of 1978, when Marilynne Herbert, our photographer, and I visited Bedford under the aegis of Rabbi Rone.

For two outsiders, just entering the prison was a shock: barbed-wire atop high cyclone fences, double gates, and corridors which seal you in between locked doors as you pass from one area to another. Prison officials would not permit tape recorders. On our third and last visit, Chaplain Baker, the prison chaplain under whose jurisdiction Rabbi Rone works, forbade us even cameras.

We were never permitted to visit with the prisoners in their living quarters, but their descriptions were vivid: each woman has her own small room with a bed, a lockbox, a small nightstand with three drawers, hooks on the wall, a toilet and a cold-water sink. The door to each room has a window in it, so that the women can be observed at all times, except for the 15-minute periods when they are permitted to draw the curtain on the inside of the window for privacy.

Contrary to the image I’d had from cell-block movies, the women prisoners’ garb was similar to civilian clothing, and some of the women wore their own clothes. Each prisoner is issued up to six blouses at a time from prison supplies, plus trousers and other garments. At one of our meetings with the women, almost all of them were wearing prison-issue light-blue corduroy trousers. No garment may be lined, to prevent items from being smuggled in or out. Packages of clothing from the outside are permitted, if the clothing conforms to prison regulations and the packages do not exceed two per month.

Nail polish, lipstick and other toiletries can be purchased at the commissary, along with tuna fish at a dollar a can and other packaged foodstuffs. The women are allowed to spend up to $45 in prison chits every two weeks (prisoners may carry no cash), but with income from prison jobs ranging from 25¢ to $1.15 per day, those with supportive friends and family on the outside are obviously better off than those women with no outside funds available.

The case of Karen Ramos, 36, epitomizes more than any other the cruelty of the drug laws of New York State.

A Brooklyn-born divorced mother of two, Karen Ramos had been living with a man with whom she’d worked in New York City’s garment district. “He didn’t present himself as being involved in any shady deals,” she says. He twice called her on the phone when they were living together and asked her to bring him sealed envelopes of “textile samples” he had left at home. Both times she did, and was photographed by narcotics agents as she handed them to him. The envelopes contained cocaine.

When charged, the man, a Bolivian citizen, jumped bail and fled the country; from press accounts, it seems that no major attempt was made to trace him. Karen, whose claims of ignorance about the envelope’s contents were never refuted at her trial, is serving the second year of a 15-years-to-life sentence.

Karen’s judge, Judge Shirley Levittan, took one year to sentence Karen, undoubtedly because she recognized the miscarriage of justice inherent in a sentencing provision (that is, a mandatory life maximum) intended for major drug traffickers yet used indiscriminately to imprison minimal first offenders as well. Judge Levittan in fact protested the mandatory heavy sentence, and said at the time, according to Karen, that had the state law given her any choice, she would have put Karen on parole at most, or declared her “time served.” But “under the present law,” Karen said, “your background can’t be considered—nothing can.”

Karen Ramos’s manner is utterly convincing, with none of the bravado that quite understandably colors some of the other prisoners’ statements. It seems that everyone who comes into contact with her is impressed, and respects her. Her interactions in the Jewish women’s group show remarkable reason, tolerance, reserve, modesty. (She also appears to have the best chance of clemency or early parole.)

Karen’s life was threatened in prison because she witnessed a fight between two prisoners. The message from one of the fighters was: “Your throat will be slit.” Karen continued:

“We are subjected to all kinds of psychopathic behavior. Violent and nonviolent criminals are all together, and you don’t know if someone is sane or insane. About 75% of the women here need psychiatric help. The prison is a mental institution.” (This statement was echoed by all the other prisoners in the room.) “Women in their twenties and thirties are acting 10 or 12. There are many retarded women here, and many who need help desperately and get none.

“I’ve never seen so many violent reactions as I have since being here. I’ve never related that way or seen people who have to react that way—people who cannot have verbal arguments. At home you can walk away from someone who’s in a bad mood on the job. You can’t do that here. There are one or two people you talk to; you try not to speak to too many people. You don’t let your feelings out— it’s too risky.” Karen continued:

“There’s tremendous culture shock in coming to a new community. We have to live with people we didn’t know about before. I’ve known blacks on the outside, but never in such numbers. I feel I’ve learned what they’re like. When blacks begin to talk to me about slavery and white oppression, I’ve tried to explain my position as a Jew. I consider Jews oppressed people.”

Karen works in the law library at Bedford, and was instrumental in setting up CALD, the Committee Against Life for Drugs (see box). She intends to make law reform her career both in the prison and when she gets out. “This is my life,” she said.

“Before, I could only describe myself as a typical middle-class Jewish woman and mother,” she said. “I’d had no dealings with the criminal justice system. I used to be delighted to read in the papers when justice was served and criminals were put behind bars— they were off the streets and not around to hurt my children. Now my work is to change the criminal justice system—I’ve seen the injustices.”

Madeline Tunic Pinetta is 36 years old, articulate, intelligent, trim. Her dark hair is cropped short and she wears her makeup simply. (The courage it must take, after seven years in prison and facing another 18, to get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and put on makeup.) She was born in the United States, to parents of Sephardic descent, and wears a small gold Magen David on a chain around her neck despite prison regulations that stipulate that religious jewelry be concealed under a shirt.

Madeline has served “almost eight years in this institution for something I have not done.” Since 1970 she has been serving a 25-years-to-life sentence as a first offender accused of “owning and selling” cocaine. According to Madeline, she needed money in an emergency, and was offered $2000 for the use of her house in a cocaine sale. “I pleaded innocent. I was a facilitator, but they didn’t charge me with that. I couldn’t say anything in court to save myself.”

Apparently, had Madeline plea-bargained and confessed to some part of the original charge (which she says was false), she might have received a substantially lighter sentence. “I have an affidavit from the Federal government saying that I was not an owner, but after seven years they’re not going to say they were wrong,” she said. Like some of the other prisoners, Madeline has suffered from being ignorant of the system, naive about how to obtain adequate legal counsel which might have protected her from the horrors of drug legislation which permits no mercy and no intervention, even by a sympathetic judge.

Fluent in Spanish, Madeline had worked in Federal and state courts as an interpreter. She has a MA degree in Fine Arts, and has spent some of her time in prison painting. (We were refused permission by the prison guards to photograph a large oil of hers that hangs in the entrance to the visitors’ hall—it’s entitled “The Bottomless Pit,” but the title card has been removed.)

Like Jews generally in our culture, Madeline and the other women are fairly well educated, which means that the high-school equivalency or trade-school courses at the prison are of no use to them, and intellectual diversion is, to say the least, scant.

Madeline knows she’s intelligent, and she’s trapped by this knowledge. “They couldn’t improve my mind here, so they gave me a job interpreting,” she said. “There’s cooking class or arts and crafts— we’re back to domestics. You become a vegetable.” She added:

“There’s unstated anti-Semitism. And we’re a double minority— white and Jewish. We’re so used to taking it that we don’t go off at the remarks. We’re a stronger type. Maybe it’s because of our background, or stories we’ve heard as kids.”

According to one of the women who has been doing volunteer work with the Jewish prisoners, Madeline has been so depressed lately that she has even given up painting. She has been denied several appeals on her case and cannot seek clemency from the Governor until all court avenues have been explored.

“I deserve another chance because I never took a life,” said Madeline. She and the other women point to the discrepancy in sentencing between drug-related crimes and crimes such as homicides. Murderers may get “zip three” (a one-to-three-year sentence) and leave on parole in 18 months. While the women sentenced on drug charges may be in prison for much of the rest of their lives, a woman who killed her five-year-old daughter for wetting her bed was given a zero-to-five-year sentence and served only 26 months before being released.

“You want parole to go out into the world to rejoin something,” said Madeline. “When I go to the Parole Board in 17 years, what have I got to go back to?

“There’s no open door for the long-termers to survive mentally. Now I’m buried alive.”

Sexual deprivation is one of the prison-related problems Madeline spoke about. “I need sex, I need to be wanted, I need love. I’m no nun, I have three children. So you look for something close to it— this place is breeding homosexuality. It is called ‘D.G.,’ a degenerate act. How do you survive? Paint? Every book you pick up has sex in it and there’s no furlough to relieve these anxieties.”

Another painful anxiety shared by women prisoners is what to do about their children on the outside. When Madeline was first imprisoned, her baby was two months old, her daughter one year old and her son four. Her children have been cared for by her mother (“my husband split”).

Her daughter just had a Bat Mitzvah — on the outside, of course, and without Madeline present, since no home visits are permitted until the minimum sentence has been served. In Madeline’s case, it will be another 17 years before she is permitted furlough or home visits or work leave, unless there is some radical and retroactive change in the law under which she was sentenced. According to one of the volunteers, Madeline has not even wanted her children to see her in prison for the past year or two. Karen, on the other hand, is visited nearly every week by her sons, now 13 and 15. They are now living with their father, Karen’s ex-husband.

Another mother is Arlene Dean, 22, of Monticello, New York, a first-time drug offender in prison for “criminal sale of a controlled substance, third degree: cocaine.” She said:

“About two months after my arrest, and before my trial, I found out I was pregnant. Until the day of my sentencing I didn’t know what I’d do with my child. My parents are taking care of the baby now, but they also have the two children of my dead sister to look after.”

Arlene was very careful to make sure that we had noted her charge accurately. Her involvement with the drug trade came, she said, through her husband, a carpenter, who was arrested in a “small” sale of cocaine. Arlene was arrested as an accomplice to the sale.

Because she has an arthritic disease, Arlene said, she ended up with a reduced sentence of 19 months, and she should be out on parole by the time this article is in print. In prison, she has been active in CALD, in the inmate liaison and human rights committees, and wants to set up a pilot drug-abuse program for teenagers in conjunction with her rabbi in Monticello when she gets out.

Another prisoner, 57-year-old Marge (not her real name), told us proudly about having had her family at the Passover Seder at Bedford. She said that when her granddaughter was rewarded for having found the afikomon (hidden piece of matzah), she insisted that the girl give some of her prizes to the other children present. “You’ve got to share these things.”

Marge’s self-image as a mother figure is still strong. She said, “I won’t change my position just because I’m in prison. Money has never been an objective to me. A woman offered me a pack of cigarettes in trade for a can of tuna fish. “I’m hungry,” she said. I told her to keep the cigarettes. I’ll tell you—I felt better about it that she was hungry and I’d helped her.”

When I first met Marge, I took her to be the rabbi’s secretary or a civilian employee of some sort. She was sitting in the rabbi’s tiny office in the building housing the chaplain’s headquarters (ominously marked “medical offices” from some previous tenant, with enough overtones of Auschwitz to make one shudder).

Marge’s hair was dyed blond, and she was wearing enormous, fashionable eyeglasses and lip liner with ruby red lipstick to match her long, lacquered nails. She was smoking a cigarette, and in her powder-blue pantsuit and print silk scarf she looked like somebody’s aunt visiting from the suburbs.

Wrong. Marge has served four years on a 15-years-to-life sentence for selling cocaine.

Like some of the other women we spoke to, Marge is reaching out for an emotional connection to her world. She corrects her friends’ opinions, criticizes the guards when she dares, and mothers the newer and the younger prisoners.

Marge spoke about how the women on her floor—an honor floor with a certain amount of leniency —look out for one another. She’s on that floor because she plays by the rules, like the one the new supervisor, a woman, has instituted at Bedford: at 6:30 A.M. “Count,” when each resident must be awake and standing outside the door of her room while all bodies are accounted for.

The lack of privacy, which amounts to a fairly constant invasion, is one of the first things a prisoner must learn to deal with. Shari, 25, a fragile-looking woman with a kerchief on her hair, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder (and has since been released on parole after serving 15 months). Shari was apparently so terrified by the atmosphere on the prison floor that for 10 months of her time at Bedford she managed to stay on the hospital ward. Her description of women there deliberately cutting themselves up makes the hospital atmosphere sound at least as pathogenic as in the prison itself.

“I was not too streetwise before coming here,” said Shari. “I had bad experiences. Many people in prison are holding back terrible tension. Kindness is taken for weakness. It leaves you open for verbal harassment. You give someone cigarettes once, and if you don’t give again there’s resentment.”

The most poignant discussion about prison’s inescapably intrusive nature came from Karen. She calmly but forcefully disagreed with Madeline’s advocacy of the return of male guards to the living floors. (There have since been demonstrations within Bedford and by sympathetic supporters outside the prison gates demanding the removal of these male guards.) Madeline’s opinion was that when tempers were high in the women’s prison—which is a medium-to-maximum security institution— the women guards were not capable of preventing violence and protecting the prisoners from one another. Karen’s rebuttal:

“I’d rather have a woman see me use the toilet through the window in my door than a man. And what if you want to sleep scantily clad in the summer, when the rooms are very hot? I don’t want a strange man looking in at me. I’m a modest person— a very modest person— and I’ve had enough just having women look at me. All my dignity has been stripped here already.”

There is total agreement among the women on the problems they face in a milieu overwhelmingly black and Christian.

“If you’re a Jew in jail, you’re treated worse—by the guards and by the prisoners. They think that if you’re Jewish you must have money, and you must think you’re better. But it’s not like that.” The speaker was Patricia Silverstein, 28, who is serving seven to 22 years on a homicide conviction. We met her only on our last visit to Bedford, because she had been in “seg” (segregation—being locked into one’s room) for 32 days for disobeying a direct order and having a fight with an officer.

Another Jewish woman, educated on three continents, asked that we not mention her background in describing her. “You know—the Patty Hearst syndrome. Don’t talk about my background because the more sophisticated you are in prison, the more they say, ‘she deserves it’.”

The Jewish women at Bedford feel that they have had to struggle even to get adequate Jewish programs at the prison. Said Marge, “I didn’t know there were Jewish services at first. Memos didn’t reach the Jewish residents. The administration cooperates with sending them, but the officers intercept them. Sometimes word doesn’t reach the women until half an hour before an event, when they’re supposed to be told two days in advance.” (There are other problems with programs, too. The prison’s seder this year was held ten days in advance of the holiday, to fit the schedule of the rabbi and the volunteers from his synagogue, not the needs of the prisoners.)

Some prisoners are told by others when they enter to sign up as being Jewish, because the rumor is that the Jewish prisoners have better activities. Many non-Jews came to Jewish events because it was a way of getting out of assignments.

Madeline reported that four years ago, “when I wanted to attend the Hispanic festival—I speak fluent Spanish and I’m Sephardic—they wouldn’t let me, ‘because she’s Jewish’.

“Gentiles would come to services and ask, ‘Why did the Jews kill Jesus Christ?’ And the rabbi would have to take time to explain that Jesus was a Jew. I went to the prison chaplain and said that the Jewish women would not go to services under these conditions. The rabbi ended up a few years ago running services for gentiles.” Now the majority of women attending Jewish activities are Jewish.

Kathleen Kaufman, 24, who is serving time for fraud, reported another instance of anti-Semitism: a letter she received from the court handling her case arrived with the words “dirty guinea Jew” scrawled on it. All mail coming into the prison is opened before it reaches the women, so there is no way of proving who added the words, or when they were added, but from Kathleen’s emotional recounting of her shock on seeing them it’s clear that she saw them as clearly threatening and anti-Semitic.

Arlene reported that while she had not experienced any assaultive remarks, “there were jokes about my being Jewish.” She said she couldn’t watch the “Holocaust” series on television last April “because I’m the only Jewish woman on my floor. There’s only one set on each floor, and a group of regulars controls it. They’d say things if I asked to watch, and I’d get mad, and it wasn’t worth the conflict.”

Madeline said, “The blacks I talked to were shocked by the Holocaust film.” Marge added, “Officers told me they never knew the Holocaust happened.”

Marge continued, “Take everything the blacks protest about on the outside, and it’s true of Jews on the inside here. We’re the oppressed minority.”

Our leave-taking was particularly hard after this conversation, our last with the Jewish women’s group. A female guard showed us out of the chaplains’ building, unlocking the door to let us out and locking the women in again after we’d stepped through the door. In our last conversation, Madeline said, “When you leave, I’ve got my Jewish sisters here. Period.”

Susan Weidman Schneider is Executive Editor of LILITH.