Jewish Prisoner Services International (JPSI)


Jewish Prisoner Services


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When One Door Closes...

By Burt Caplan

When one door closes--- for the dedicated volunteers affiliated with Jewish Prisoner Services International (JPSI), these words have a double meaning. For the past nine years, several Collier County-based volunteers have been visiting the Jewish prisoners at Hendry Correctional Institution. Though rarely thought about by the uninitiated, those who've been in captivity for so many years forget what it's like to do simple things like opening or closing a door. Prisoners aren't allowed to make these decisions on their own. In many sections of the prison compound, opening or closing a door is a matter for staff members to decide. Even then, the door is locked or unlocked electrically. What is simple and uncomplicated out here becomes a major undertaking in there. Even after all these years, JPSI's volunteers still have not become accustomed to having to stand in front of a door and wait to be let in and out of buildings. The sound of heavy steel doors clanging shut, and the seeming finality of this experience linger with us long after the visit is over.

A Volunteer Conducts Jewish Services in Prison

Doors closing have another meaning. During these past nine years, even as inmates had come and gone, either transferred to other facilities or had been released, relationships have been built between the volunteers and those they serve. Often, JPSI's volunteers have become their surrogate family, especially with those inmates who have lost complete contact with their immediate family. Regardless of the reason for their imprisonment, severing family ties only compounds the ill effects of total isolation from the real world. Thus, for many inmates, JPSI's volunteers function as surrogate family as well as a conduit to mainstream society. There were no expressions of joy when Florida's Department of Corrections announced that Hendry Correctional Institution was about to become a facility for first-time youthful offenders. Members of the Jewish group were to become part of a diaspora in miniature. Weekly transports moved them to the most remote, far corners of Florida.

Sadly, our congregation was no more.

For the first time in many years, JPSI's volunteers were not able to sound the shofar at Hendry Correctional Institution on Rosh Hashanah. Then too, this is the first year the group did not communally break the fast at the close of the Yom Kippur Holy Day. The volunteers who have been participating in these visits to the prison sincerely believe that they'd made a positive impression on the inmates' lives, and helped them regain or retain their faith in Judaism. But, even as we express regret at the thought of not being an extended family any longer, we happily and gratefully acknowledge that, as one door slams shut, another door opens widely.

With the biweekly visits to Hendry now etched into history, Sid Kleiner, JPSI's Regional Coordinator, has made arrangements for area volunteers to expand their visits to Jewish prisoners in other facilities in Southwest and Central Florida. For the first time, High Holy Days visits were planned for South Bay Correctional Institution and Okeechobee Correctional Institution. Additionally, special shofar services were conducted at the Buena Vida Retirement Community as well as at DeSoto and Glades Correctional Institutions. Geographically isolated, and, for the most part ignored, DeSoto Correctional Institution will now join the JPSI visitors' orbit.

Problems faced by our incarcerated brethren should be a major concern of the entire Jewish community. All of these people, no matter what their crime, are Jews. We must not turn our backs on fellow members of the faith. Beyond carrying out a high-priority mitzvot, there is another practical and powerful reason to keep our doors and minds open. It's an undeniable fact that most of these men and women will be released one day. Historically, there is a significantly less chance of recidivism among ex-offenders who have participated in religious and spiritual activities while behind the walls. Just consider the countless inmates who have been denied spiritual and/or caring relationships over the years. These men and women leave prison filled with bitterness and pent-up anger. Simply stated: which ex-offender would you desire to be your next-door neighbor? The answer is obvious.

As we endeavor to make a positive impact on our incarcerated brethren, they, in turn, have helped us grow in more ways than we can enumerate. We hope they will take the information, knowledge and comfort they have derived from this vital outreach program visits and share them with other Jewish inmates wherever they will be housed. To those Jews in the prisons we'll soon be visiting, the organization hopes to bring you the same Judaic knowledge, comfort and inner peace that we brought to the congregation at Hendry Correctional Institution.

To members of the faith out here in the real world, we unashamedly ask for your support. Volunteers are needed in all departments, from visitations, shipping Judaica, to answering the volume of mail JPSI receives from those in need. Your dollars are needed to purchase tallaisim, siddurim, tzitzit, tefillin and Tanakhim for those Jewish inmates who seek to take the spiritual road to rehabilitation. Help us open the door to T'shuvah for thousands of our forgotten and overlooked brethren. Peace be with you!

Burt Caplan, JPSI volunteer


Board Member & Regional Coordinator
Jewish Prisoner Services International
An Outreach/Advacacy Agency for Jewish Prisoners and their Families
10188 Winter View Drive
Naples, FL

PHONE: (941) 591-2649     FAX (941) 566-7702

Seattle, WA 98145

Please respond to Naples address
Headquarters Phone: (206)-985-0577    FAX: (206) 985-0479


from the December 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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