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The Lewisburg Prison United Jewish Appeal
© 2007 Excerpted from Lewisburg 19370 by Lee Miskin
The Jewish group in Lewisburg, due to our small numbers, our mutual reliance, our common background, and the time spent together at services and meetings, became a very close unit. When it came to our attention that some of us were without cigarettes, it was only natural that those with cigarettes would share them during a meeting. There were men amongst us who had no money to spend at the commissary, some because they had no family on the outside and some because they did not want their family to know they were in prison. A limitation of twelve dollars a month meant that a heavy smoker, after purchasing cigarettes, toothpaste, razor blades, and other necessary odds and ends, had no money left to buy the goodies that were available at the commissary. In prison it was unheard of for an inmate to give cigarettes to someone else without receiving any benefit in return. It was extremely difficult for a smoker to endure the stress of prison life without the small comfort a cigarette can offer.
The Jewish group at Lewisburg was, for all practical purposes, an isolated world within a world. In many respects we looked to the history of our people, not only to teach us survival techniques, but to set us an example of how to care for one another, in many ways. We developed our own United Jewish Appeal.
It was understood that each Jewish inmate would voluntarily contribute two packs of cigarettes each month to the welfare fund. Any inmate who had no money in his commissary fund was entitled to receive two packs each week when he came to services. Fortunately for us, the number of inmates who relied upon our war chest was seldom more than one or two at any time. We all derived such satisfaction from sharing our cigarettes with those in our group who had none that we determined to go one step further.
The federal prison system has a far-flung, elaborate network of prison facilities throughout the United States. Prisoners are constantly being transferred from one institution to another. The federal prison buses, used for transporting prisoners, have the exterior appearance of a regular Greyhound bus, but on the inside are manned by two armed guards in addition to the driver. Inmates are securely handcuffed during transportation and the buses do not travel at night. There are enough institutions scattered around the United States so that a prison bus can go from one institution to another during the daylight hours, and the inmates are housed at a federal facility overnight. Therefore, in Lewisburg we were constantly having new prisoners in transit in the quarantine area. Quarantine is difficult under any circumstances. Those inmates quarantined in transit are restricted even more. Some men only spend one night. However, under certain circumstances it might be a two week stay-over.
We determined that any Jews who came into Lewisburg in transit would also receive the benefit of our United Jewish Appeal cigarette fund. I have no doubt that this was the first time in the annals of penology that a prisoner, stopping in transit at a penitentiary, received cigarettes from any inmate group. Our undertaking was so novel in its concept and so gratifying that we all cooperated enthusiastically in making it work.
Normally, new inmates are interviewed and information is passed on to the chaplains as to religious preference. The transient inmates' files never left the quarantine area and the chaplains were not notified, although these men were entitled to attend religious services. The public address system announced the time of services and the transients went in a separate group. It was very difficult to determine if and when Jewish inmates were in the transient area. Most transients have many problems on their minds and a large percentage are not interested in any religious activity. Jews finding themselves in a strange prison frequently are wary about being the only inmate in a cellblock to request to go to Jewish services.
I had to develop a system through my many contacts to determine who was Jewish in the transient quarantine group. The records of the transients were carried on each federal bus and left with the institution while the men were kept in quarantine. As a man departed on a different bus, his records went with him in the possession of the lieutenant in charge of the bus. The only inmate who had access to the records was the clerk typist who worked in the quarantine area.
Trading favors between inmates in different jobs is a way of life in prison. The clerk typist in the quarantine area was approached and requested to supply me with the names of any newly arrived Jewish inmates. Since the number of inmates arriving at any one time was very limited, it was a simple matter for him to check the file for the religion of each man. The Protestant chaplain was always cooperative about issuing me a pass to visit a Jewish inmate. Oddly enough, no one ever asked how I knew that a transient inmate was Jewish. I knew that if the officials wanted proof that the inmate was a Jew, the files would verify the fact.
It was always extremely interesting to meet a newly arrived inmate. I would introduce myself, explain my position in the Jewish congregation, and offer him two packs of cigarettes. I would explain that it was the policy of the Jewish inmate group in Lewisburg to give two packs of cigarettes to every Jew who came through in transit. Whether or not the inmate was a hardened con or a first-timer in prison, he always had a look of total disbelief on his face when I handed him the cigarettes. As these men traveled with the federal bus to the various institutions in the United States, there is no doubt that they spread the word of our United Jewish Appeal fund in Lewisburg.
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from the June 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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