April 28, 2005
Holiday of Freedom Spent Behind Bars
The high concrete walls of the little-used cafeteria at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles hardly spoke to Passover’s concept of freedom found and bondage ended. But this is where a dozen inmates gathered for their seder, in a setting that cried out Egypt rather than the promised land.
Rabbi Yossi Carron, the jail’s Jewish chaplain, held up a sprig of parsley to redefine the bleak surroundings.
“This is a real great symbol for you,” the Reform rabbi said. “I really want you to believe in the green parts of yourself. This symbol is you.”
The Jewish inmates listened — as they were watched by five sheriff’s deputies. Also on hand were four male and five female volunteers, along with a non-Jewish inmate and a former neo-Nazi skinhead who says he wants to convert. Eight other inmates had signed up for the two-hour ceremony on Thursday, two days before the official holiday, but three had been released and five were unavailable because of pending court proceedings.
A young Filipina was there to help the oldest volunteer, a 95-year-old woman who moved very, very slowly with a walker.
“She came in a wheelchair last year,” Carron said. “She’s been coming for 40 years.”
These aren’t the Jews who get ink for going to prison, better-known cons include Wall Street financial scammers and the like.
The inmates at this seder don’t get much attention, except perhaps from Carron. Jail rules even prohibit journalists from talking to the prisoners or mentioning their names.
No singing of “Dayenu” or hearing a rabbi tell the inmates that “everybody’s in prison somehow” could negate the blinding reality of being in one of the largest brigs in the world — a very violent place. High on one wall were rows of windowpanes, of which 17 were smashed.
Among the celebrants, there were one or two Russian accents plus two more voices bearing Sephardic lilts. All the congregants were color-coded: The three wearing blue jumpsuits were from the jail’s general population; another five wore a combo yellow-and-blue jumpsuit, from the psychiatric ward; four more wore the light aqua of the homosexual unit. The one inmate wearing red — a Dr. Demento look-alike with a gray ponytail — bore the scarlet of a sexual predator. He’s spent the last five Passovers behind bars.
The red-clad inmate arrived in a wheelchair. He gave his chair to the 95-year-old volunteer and then sat at the table.
The deputies stood watchfully at the door. Physical contact such as hugging was kept to a minimum. Trying to keep the mood festive, Carron sang some of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” prompting a deputy to ask his colleagues: “This is Jewish music?”
Later, Carron sang a bit of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”
When invited to speak during the seder, all but one inmate did so. Like testimonials at a Baptist tent revival, they talked of how long they’d been “down,” or serving time. For one inmate it was “three months shy of three years.”
A Sephardic-accented inmate said he had been down for two months this year, but did a 10-month stint last year. His interlude of freedom was not particularly spiritual.
“I really don’t get a chance to [pray] when I’m on the outside,” he said.
A young psychiatric-warder, with a tattoo covering the back of his neck, said, “Just coming down the hall, I got a little emotional.”
The former neo-Nazi skinhead — and would-be Jewish convert —said he’s discovered “German Jewish blood in me.”
The deputies were skeptical; they’re wise to inmate scamming. This one, they said, lives in the jail’s homosexual unit, not because he considers himself gay, but because “gay time” is less violent. They also speculate that he wanted a good meal.
The meal was Passover worthy: matzah ball soup, pot roast, kugel, chicken, even gefilte fish. Grape juice filled in for wine.
There was no mistaking the sincerity in the voice of a heavyset inmate with a Russian accent who appeared to be in his 20s. He wore a shiny purple kippah, given to him by Carron.
“I’ve been down about a year,” he said. “All I wanted actually was this kippah. I was praying to get this kippah.”
The deputies seemed to believe him.