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Behind the Bars at Rikers

Gila Arnold

People on the outside can’t really imagine what prison life is about — for both the inmates and those employed to keep them behind bars. What’s it like to counsel a murderer, provide religious services to a gang leader, or accompany a drug lord in and out of his cell? For a handful of Jewish professionals at Rikers Island, it’s the challenge of a lifetime. Here’s their story.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Jail: It’s a different world

You live in a small room with a mattress, a toilet, and a bucket for washing your laundry. Summer days are stuffy, without air conditioning. Most inmates spend their day playing cards, talking to fellow prisoners, and watching endless TV. One hour a day, they’re entitled to go outside and get some air. And of course, there’s the allotted phone call a day — more if they have the commissary money to purchase extra minutes. Not exactly an enticing way to live; then again, it’s not supposed to be.

Most of us will never see the jail lifestyle up close. But there are some frum Jews who live it day after day. We sometimes hear about them: religious Jews who are incarcerated, their struggles and personal challenges, and the volunteers who support them. But there’s another group of religious Jews in prison, a group that doesn’t tend to get as much press. These are the Jews who work in theUS prison system, a tiny minority within a minority. What motivates them to choose such an unusual career path, and how does being Orthodox impact their jobs?

Rikers Islandis New York City’s main jail complex. Located in the East River between Queens and theBronx, the ten jails on the island hold between 12,000 and 17,000 prisoners and are the workplace for 9,000 correctional officers and 1,500 civilians. Rikers is a jail and not a prison, which means that inmates are either serving short sentences or are in transit to another facility.

For an inside look, we talked to three Jewish professionals who work at Rikers, men who spend their days with prisoners beyond the barbed wire and behind the locked doors.

What’s it like? We found out.


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