I have not really talked about what happens once you are actually in prison. I am referring to what life is like once a prisoner is finally settled into his new residence. Unfortunately, a prisoner has to adjust to a whole host of new realities. One of the harshest realities that is learned rather quickly is that, quite simply, you do not matter and for all practical purposes you have no rights. Are you sick? No one cares. Did a guard discriminate you based on race or religion? No one cares. Religious rights? Well I was once told to go pray in the bathroom, because "G-d doesn't matter in here". Is it supposed to be this way? No, but it is. And why you ask? Well really who cares about prisoners? Realistically, the rights of prisoners is not a cause that resonates with most citizens. Even for those for whom the cause does resonate it certainly is not a priority. The reality is that for the most part, those running the prison can get away with just about anything they want with no consequences whatsoever. Even if a complaint is made, it will be years before it is addressed. Imagine how inefficient and bureaucratic the government is on a good day. Now multiply that inefficiency by about a thousand. The message is clear: YOU DO NOT MATTER!
Enter the Aleph Institute. Aleph is an organization that advocates for the rights of Jewish prisoners nationwide and Jewish Soldiers worldwide. Obviously, prison is a trying experience and for someone with religious needs it can be all the more difficult. Thanks to Aleph, systematic changes have been made withing the prison system. Kosher food is now a right in federal prisons as well as many state prisons. Jewish prisoners do not have to work on holidays. There are regular services. Moreover, if any one of our religious rights are violated, Aleph is there to use the correct channels to correct the injustice.This was no simple matter. In many cases Aleph had to actually sue prions systems to secure the rights of Jewish prisoners. Members of all faiths have been the beneficiaries of Aleph's relentless advocacy for the religious rights of inmates. Aleph has also been leading the effort in advocating for prison reform as well as for the restoration of rights for those, such as myself, who have been released.
Aleph also does a lot to make the prison experience a little less unpleasant. In honor of many of the holidays, Aleph sends people to any prison in the country where there is a need for someone to conduct services or just to make sure there is a minyan. In many prisons, volunteers visit prisoners two or even three times per month. For a prisoner this is a reminder that even while incarcerated there is still a community outside of the prison walls that cares about him. Aleph also has programs to help the families of incarcerated inmates. They even provide toys for children of inmates on Chanukah so that the children can feel some sense of joy even when a parent is missing. Any and every Jew is helped; from the most religious the the most secular.
Aleph's advocacy even goes beyond fighting for religious rights. When I hurt my arm and was waiting weeks for an MRI, I decided to contact Aleph. Remember prisons have budgets and every test eats into this shrinking budget. Who really cares if a prisoner has permanent damage to a limb? I had been told that it would be at least another month before the MRI truck came to the camp. Well within 24 hours of contacting Aleph I was approved to leave the camp to have an MRI done. It became quickly established in the prison that if you wanted anything to get done, you had to call Alpeh. I even had other inmates offer to pay me (in tuna of course) if I could get Aleph to advocate for them.
Aleph is concerned for the family unit. If there is a family celebration such as a child's bar mitzva or wedding or G-d forbid a funeral, Aleph will spare no effort to make sure that a furlough is granted so an inmate can be with his family during that time. Aleph also expends many resources to make sure that inmates get the maximum allowable time in a halfway house. For me that meant a total of six months on a 20 month sentence, or roughly double the norm. In short, from the time a prisoner starts his sentence until the time he walks out of prison, Aleph is intimately involved in improving his life behind bars as well as the lives of his family members waiting for him outside.
None of this is cheap. Aleph has but one major fundraiser a year to cover the cost of all of these programs as well as the programs for Jews in the US Military. The fundraiser is the Aleph Auction and it is taking place this Monday night, February 19th. Tickets can be purchased at http://aleph.auction/. While winners need not be present, this year, those who do attend will be addressed by none other than Sholom Rubashkin. I attended this auction for many years as a donor, never imagining that I would one day be a recipient of the amazing work they do. So I appeal to those of you who read this to open your hearts (and your wallets) and give generously to this worthy cause. And you never know, you just may win something!
You can learn more about Aleph at http://aleph-institute.org