Passover In Otisville Prison

Passover In Otisville Prison

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In March of 2015 I worked in the prison warehouse. The warehouse is where everything that is used by inmates is shipped into the prison. The warehouse gets truck loads of food, clothing, and commissary items, such as toiletries, packaged food, olive oil. Kosher food is also shipped into the warehouse. Usually a Jewish guy from Monroe or Monsey drives into the warehouse loading dock in a minivan packed with challahs, salmon, chicken soup, and other Jew food.

The goyim in Otisville also got special items for their holidays. A bunch of palms were shipped into the warehouse for Palm Sunday. An inmate named Tom was in charge of the Christian items. You can’t trust a Jewish inmate to handle the palm leaves for Palm Sunday. Tom was an older Irish accountant who embezzled about a million bucks from the company he worked for in Connecticut. He graduated from Fairfield Prep in the 1960s. He said he was never raped by any priests. He stole money in order to invest it in risky stocks. He was addicted to the stock market. Everyone has their vices. Tom got about three or four years. His favorite tv show was “The Goldbergs.” He told me it was a great show and that I should watch it with him. I told him I saw enough Jewish clowns in Otisville, why would I want to watch them on television. He told me it was about Jewish clowns from the 1980s, my generation. I told him I didn’t want to be reminded of my past. I had so much promise in those days.

March was also the month of March Madness. Every day throughout the year is madness in Otisville. March Madness is basketball month. The Officers posted a memo giving the lowly inmates permission to watch the basketball games, even during times when inmates were not allowed to watch tv.

The palms arrived at the warehouse on March 25, 2015 for the Christian inmates. Catholic inmate Tom was supposed to be in charge of unloading the palm branches and securing them from theft by other inmates. Inmates will steal just about anything. There is always a willing buyer somewhere in the clink. The only inmate available to unload the palm leaves and lock them up in the fridge was a Jewish inmate. The officer watched him unload the leaves. I didn’t see him steal any of the palm leaves but you never know. While the officer looked away this inmate could have stashed a leaf inside an empty box in the warehouse. He could retrieve it later and then smuggle it into the main camp. At night, when only one officer is working the all night red eye babysitting the inmates, he could hawk his goods on the open market. This is how to steal, smuggle and sell.

Just before Passover the Jews are taken out of the camp in a prison bus to go to a mikveh bath. It’s like something you would see in a movie. A school bus with bars on the windows. Each inmate gets searched before he boards the prison bus. We get driven into town on the bus. We get exposed to the outside world. I could feel my blood pressure increase as we hit traffic. I hadn’t been outside of the prison camp in many months. The outside world seemed foreign to me. Had I become “institutionalized?” I saw people in cars with normal clothing. All I saw in the camp were inmates dressed in green shirts and pants and officers dressed in blue uniforms. I hadn’t been in a car in many months. The sight of cars, trucks, traffic lights, houses, and office buildings was overwhelming.

Mshulem and Rabbi Ben Haim sat in the front of the bus, immersed in prayers. Other guys talked, told jokes, and looked out the bus windows like caged animals. Eventually we reached our destination. The guards patted us down as we exited the bus. We lined up and went in to a little building with showers and an in ground religious mikveh bath. Each guy stripped naked and walked down the steps into the bath. Each guy dunked, got out, took a shower and got dressed. Some guys didn’t go in the bath. Some guys just wanted to take a ride on the bus and check out the scenery. We all lined up and got back in the bus. Back to the camp. Back at the camp I had to endure jokes about a bunch of inmates taking a bath together.

The Sephardic Rabbi Ben Haim led the Passover seders. Ben Haim was mentioned in the New York Times article about Otisville: “Then there was the Syrian rabbi from Deal, N.J., who was involved in a money-laundering scheme and whose parables were particularly enjoyed by Russian Jewish inmates from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, who were in prison for health care fraud.” Rabbi Ben Haim was the only rabbi in the camp. The powerful Litvish rabbi Leib Pinter was gone for a furlough. Pinter was also mentioned in the NY Times article: “Many inmates knew the Talmud inside and out, said Mr. Dressler, a lawyer in New Haven who served 18 months in Otisville for mortgage fraud. They often conducted religious classes and gained inmate followings, as did a Hasidic rabbi from Brooklyn who got caught up in mortgage fraud before the 2008 housing market crash.” Pinter knew the Talmud backwards and forwards and inside and out. Pinter led the daily Daf, but not without a few incidents. At one point inmate Alex Schleider, part of the Eli Weinstein billion dollar Lakewood ponzi scheme, didn’t like the way the Daf was conducted. Alex constantly argued with Pinter. Pinter eventually kicked him out of the Daf. Alex decided to soak Pinter’s cushioned seat with water. It was not a pretty sight when Pinter sat down. Nobody went the SHU, ie., solitary, at least not this time.

The guys were happy that Pinter and 80 year old Satmar Hasid Naftuli Schlesinger were gone on furloughs during the Passover seders. There was less fighting about how the seders were to be conducted. The four questions were read by 25 year old drug dealer Dave Greenberg. Dave was a club drug dealer who used to deal Ecstasy to Paris Hilton. He was raised as a Reform Jew so he didn’t know the Hebrew very well.

During daily Passover services 80 year old Schlesinger the Satmar and Rabbi Pinter were back from their furloughs. Let the festivities begin. Pinter and Schlesinger had an issue with the inmates who were Kohanim. They had many other issues with the shul but this one was most memorable. One of the Kohanim was Artie, who left Satmar, and his family, when he was in his 20s and vowed never to return. When he arrived in Otisville and saw all the Jews he suffered flashbacks and PTSD. He also got in vicious fights with the 80 year old Satmar. Artie refused to partake in the Kohanim prayers. He stayed in his bunk during that part of the service. The other Kohen, Mike, was a guy with a Jew fro who left the Pupa sect years ago and became a drug dealer and money launderer. Mike never went to shul yet he wanted to lead the Kohanim services just to piss off Pinter, Schlesinger, Schleider, and whoever else he could get riled up. Pinter and Schlesinger walked out in protest. Some of the Levite inmates refused to wash Mike’s hands. The only Kohen the Rabbis considered to be kosher was a Syrian guy named Don Isaac. This is the way inmates entertain each other. This goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Welcome to prison.

The reporter for the NY Times had a hard time understanding how Rabbis such as Pinter and Ben Haim, who were convicted of fraud type crimes and sentenced to many years, could act as leaders in prison, helping guys follow the prison rules as well as teaching guys moral and ethical laws of the Torah. I told him it was very easy to understand. These guys may have been law abiding citizens for the most part of their lives. They made some bad decisions in their lives that got them in trouble. Does the fact that they made a few mistakes define how they lived their entire lives? They were not committing crimes 24 hours a day / seven days a week. They succumbed to temptation. Some guys are placed in positions with greater temptations than others. Should they beat themselves up for the rest of their lives, or should they try to make amends and move forward and lead a productive life? The Justice Department doesn’t have any compassion for anyone caught in it’s net. Jail is the only remedy for someone who breaks the law. Nothing else is taken into account. If you are 95 years old, too bad, you go to prison. If you have mental health or addiction problems, too bad, you go to prison and deal with it. You are labelled a criminal by the Federal government. This label follows you for the rest of your life. In the meantime the Justice Department has done nothing to reduce the level of crime. One third of all Americans have a criminal record, about 70 million people.

If you are property of the Federal government or the property of some corrupt individual or organization, don’t give up hope, break your chains, free your mind, redemption & geulah is near, Moshiach Now!

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