Happy Holidays From Otisville Prison

Happy Holidays From Otisville Prison

Did you ever wonder what goes on in jail during the holidays?  While you are running around shopping and going to parties, there are about two million Americans, half of whom charged with non violent crimes, or too poor to afford bail, sitting inside prison cells.  Such numbers are unheard of in the rest of the modern world, especially for non violent offenders.

My prison job during the December holidays was packing bags of candy and cookies into little holiday bags.  These bags were handed out to each inmate by the warden.  They were called “Hug a thug” bags.  The blueboyz stood guard watching me, lest I try to sneak a few cookies into my pockets.

You would think inmates would get emotional during the holidays, being away from home for so long.  Some guys spent years of holidays away from their families.  But nobody shows emotion in jail.  Such a display is a sign of weakness.  You become an easy target for hustlers and thugs.

Many of the guys I was locked up with were Russian Jews from Brooklyn, involved in medicare fraud and health care fraud.  Over billing the dysfunctional Federal government.  These guys all spent time in the Russian army.  Most of them were from the Ukraine. These guys didn’t show much emotion during the year, never mind during the holidays.

There was one infamous Jewish Satmar inmate named Herman “Mshulom” Jacobowitz.  Mshulom was allowed to show his emotions.   He was in charge of the kosher food that was shipped into the camp from outside charitable organizations. Food is a big commodity in prison, especially food from the outside.  Prison food supplied by the Federal government is very bad.  The government buys very cheap food that long past it’s expiration date.

Every day Mshulom jumped up and down and waved his hands to the heavens while he prayed and screamed for a miracle that he should released immediately.  It was raw emotion.  You couldn’t help but feel the same way.  Being locked up all day and all night, year after year, takes it toll.

Most ordinary inmates couldn’t get away with such emotional outbursts. But if you had power, just like on the outside, you can do whatever you want.

And then there was the other infamous Satmar inmate, 80 year old Naftule Schleshinger.  His case was full of high drama, not unlike the case of Herman Jacobowitz.  Both guys had family businesses that went amok, and relatives who were involved in their crimes.  The Jewish version of the Sopranos.  Both guys got long prison sentences.  You could produce a movie about their stories.  Or a very long running mini series.

In prison Naftuli didn’t show much emotion, other than anger.  At times he was mellow and very nice.  Other times he would get on your nerves.  Naftuli was a fair, slim man with a long white beard and side curls.  He spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent.  He looked like a character from Fiddler on the Roof.  He reminded me of my grandfather.

Naftuli once asked me to look over his paperwork in his criminal case.  I tried to help the man.  I asked him questions about his case.  Questions that any jailhouse lawyer would normally ask.   Naftuli didn’t like my questions.  He got mad and called me a “shmucko.”  He said he couldn’t understand how I graduated law school.  He said I must have been a bad lawyer if I ended up in jail with him.  Naftuli didn’t remind me of my grandfather anymore.

For some period of time I didn’t talk to Naftuli. How do you talk to a guy who goes around telling everyone that you are a shmucko and a bad lawyer.  Eventually I tried to make up with him.  After all, he was an elderly 80 year old man.  I should respect the elderly, no matter how crazy.  I tried to warm up to him.  But he didn’t respond in kind.  He cited a verse from King Solomon, “A fool should keep quiet lest he be thought of as a fool.”  Now I was not only a shmucko, but also a fool.

I had befriended a Lubavitch Jewish inmate from Brazil who played soccer.  The guys gave him the nickname “Brazil.”  Brazil hated Naftuli.  He got mad at me whenever I spoke with Naftuli.  Brazil’s nickname for Naftuli was “the Devil.”  Brazil didn’t like Mshulom either.  Brazil’s nickname for Mshulom was “the animal.”

Mshulom was in charge of handing out the Chanukah menorahs to the Jewish inmates.  Each inmate got a menorah and wax candles.  Special inmates, like Mshulom and Naftuli, got special menorahs that burned little jars of olive oil.

Mshulom was also in charge of handing out the sufganiyot, the Israeli jelly donuts traditionally eaten on Chanukah.  Mshulom had a list of Jewish inmates.  Each inmate stood in line and waited to get a doughnut.  Mshulom checked off each name.  Next.

If an inmate got more than one doughnut the other inmates would get jealous.  There is always the risk of a riot breaking out over a doughnut.  Guys in jail don’t like it when other guys get special privileges. Mshulom has to keep the peace.  He can be corrupt but not too corrupt, lest others threaten his power.




2 thoughts on “Happy Holidays From Otisville Prison

  1. Never knew you stuffed my hug-a-thug bag. Thanks, Larry! Boy, you described shleshinger and mshulom perfectly…. Shmucko!! Nate liked me for some reason, even though I am a goy. I gave him a couple of onions during my brief stint in the kitchen and I think that won him over forever. Mshulom only spoke to me once, when I carried the Tora into the suka for him. Some strange part of me misses that awful place. We did the best with what we had and sometimes the laughs and smiles were even genuine. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

    1. Thank you Kitchen Joe! Great to hear from you. If you have any stories of your own, that you would like me to post, sent them along… lol. All the best to you and your family for the holidays. Everything looks better looking back, it’s called nostalgia. I do miss the friends that I made over there. You don’t know who your real friends are until you are locked up.

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