A few months ago I attended a prison reform event that was hosted by a Jewish organization known as Shabtai at Yale. Shabtai was founded in 1996 by Rabbi Shmully Hecht, a few Jewish Yalies and Cory Booker when he was a student at Yale Law School. Cory Booker has promised to grant thousands of pardons to inmates locked up in Federal prison for drug offenses if he is elected El Presidente. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kamela Harris have all made promises of major criminal justice reform if they are put in the White House. It has now become trendy for politicians to talk about dismantling the entire criminal justice system. The Queens race for District Attorney right now is too close to call, with Spanish Public Defender reformer Tiffany Caban challenging the Jewish incumbent Melinda Katz. H’Katz v. La Gata. Had I been indicted in 2019 instead of 2014 I could have avoided Otisville altogether. If it wasn’t for bad mazel I’d have no mazel at all.
I wasn’t officially invited to the Shabtai prison reform event. Shabtai usually only allows Yale students or Yale graduates to it’s events. Shabtai sent an email invitation to all students and graduates on the Hillel at Yale mailing list. Although I am not a Yale student or Yale graduate I am on the Hillel email list. I was allowed on the list long before I was a convicted felon. I got on the list through legal means. Yale Hillel needed me for their daily minyans. They were desperate. They put me on their list. After I got out of prison they didn’t take me off the list. Surprisingly I was still asked to help with the minyans even though they knew I was convicted felon. I assumed that after I was released from Otisville I would only be allowed to pray in shuls in Williamsburg, Kiryas Yoel, or Boro Park, where half the congregants are convicted felons. While I was at the Yale minyans I tried to keep a low profile, but every now and then a Yalie approached me and talked to me about how one of their friends just got indicted, or how they got a threatening letter from the Department of Injustice. Now I knew why they asked me to attend their minyans.
I sent Shabtai an RSVP to their prison reform event. I wanted to give them a heads up before I showed up. I didn’t want to surprise anyone. They may not have realized that they had invited a convicted felon to their event. The Yale kinderlach at Shabtai sent me a cordial email indicating that I would be welcome to attend. It was a formal affair. I told the students I didn’t own a tuxedo. They said that was fine, as long as I did not come dressed in my prison sweats. They also said that they knew all about my blog. They mentioned that there would be security at the event. I assured them that I wouldn’t cause any trouble.
As soon as I walked through the front doors of Shabtai I was greeted by the Yale students who corresponded with me in the emails. They immediately recognized me. I thought they were going to frisk me but instead they greeted me warmly and showed me where I could hang up my coat. After I hung up my coat I saw another old White guy in a suit. I figured I had more in common with the old White guy in the suit than with the Yale teenagers. I introduced myself to him. He told me that his name was Scott Semple, the Connecticut Commissioner of Corrections. He was the top jailer in the State. For a brief moment I lost my voice and nearly vomited on the hardwood floor. After I composed myself I told Mr. Semple that I spent many years visiting State prisons as an attorney representing clients doing jail time. I also told him that my law license was suspended after I got convicted of a Federal crime and I spent 18 months in Otisville Federal prison. I told him I was familiar with the inside of a jail cell. He said he was sorry to hear that. He was actually a nice guy for a jailer. I told him that I thought jail was inhumane and a waste of time. He pretty much agreed with me. He said the State of Connecticut was trying to reduce the incarceration rate and make prisons more productive for inmates. Our conversation was interrupted when Rabbi Shmully Hecht, Rabbi Lipskar and a few other dignitaries entered the room. They warmly greeted Mr. Semple and told me to take a hike.
Rabbi Lipskar is the head of the Aleph Institute, a Jewish non-profit organization that helps Jewish inmates get kosher food, matzoh ball soup on Passover, challah rolls, and other religious items. Rabbi Shmully Hecht is one of the guys who started Shabtai with Corey Booker. I knew of Rabbi Lipskar from my time in Otisville, but I had never met the man. Some inmates were big fans of Aleph, others complained that Aleph didn’t do enough. I never had a problem with Aleph. Inmates like to complain a lot. There isn’t much else to do when you are locked up 24/7.
At the Shabtai event Rabbi Lipskar gave an emotional speech about how he was at the side of a man who received the death penalty. I cannot imagine watching a man die, especially at the hands of his own government. After Rabbi Lipskar spoke a young Jewish man from New Haven who did a few years in Federal and State prison spoke. He talked about how the Aleph Institute helped him while he was locked up and after he was released. Aleph helped this guy get job training and a real job. It’s the government’s job to make sure inmates have skills to get a job and don’t end up back in jail. Non profit organizations should not be doing the job of the government.
Anthony Ray Hinton spoke next. Hinton spoke about his case. The cops arrested him in 1985 and charged him with two murders. There were no eyewitnesses placing him at the scene of the crime. Anthony’s boss testified that Anthony was at work on the day of the murder. The State presented evidence that the bullets at the crime scene matched a gun belonging to Anthony’s mother. Anthony’s public defender presented the testimony of an incompetent one-eyed ballistics expert who said he had problems seeing through a microscope. Anthony was convicted and sentenced to death. Anthony was on death row for almost 30 years before his case was reopened. After his case was reopened a ballistics test was conducted by the FBI which cleared Anthony of the crime.
Anthony talked about the book he just wrote, ie., The Sun Does Shine. He asked everyone to buy his book so that he could pay his bills. The State of Alabama has refused to pay him a penny for his 28 years of wrongful incarceration. Anthony spoke about a White inmate on death row whom he befriended. After several months the other inmates told Anthony that the White guy was a member of the KKK and was on death row for brutally murdering a Black man. Anthony asked the White inmate if he was a racist. The White inmate told him that since he has been incarcerated with Blacks he has regretted his crime. Anthony said that the last words the White inmate said before he was executed were the following: “All of my life, my father, my mother, my community taught me to hate. The very people that they taught me to hate were the ones who taught me to love.”
After Anthony spoke the audience asked him a few questions. An older Jewish couple, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, asked the first questions. The husband asked Anthony why he thought the people in the State of Alabama were racist, as if he didn’t believe Anthony. Anthony didn’t look too happy about this question. The wife asked Anthony whether there was anything he missed about prison. Another stupid question. Anthony clammed up. There was an awkward silence. I stood and asked Anthony whether there was anyone who came to visit him over the 28 years he was incarcerated. I know how important visitors are to keeping one’s sanity in prison. Anthony nearly cried. He said his best friend came to visit him once a week, without fail, for 28 years. He said this man came in the rain, snow, hail, sleet, and drove two hours each way to visit the jail. Unreal.
After Anthony spoke the Yalies lined up to meet him. I waited until the line cleared and introduced myself. I told Anthony I spent 18 months in jail. He smiled and put his giant arm around me and said I knew what it was like. I told him that what I went through was nothing compared to his 28 years in solitary. He showed me the screen saver on his cell phone. It was a picture of a full moon in the dark sky. He told me that for 28 years he never saw the moon. He said he waited 28 years to see the moon.
Shabtai has many events similar to this one that featured Anthony Hinton. Most events are not open to the public. Shabtai also hosted a guy named Brandon Chrostowski. Brandon is a celebrity chef who runs a non-profit that helps former inmates learn how to cook and the restaurant business. When Brandon was a teen he got busted and almost sentenced to ten years for a drug crime. He started working in a restaurant and turned his life around. I wasn’t able to infiltrate this event. I think I was locked up in Otisville at the time.
Shabtai once had former lobbyist and felon Jack Abramoff speak at a small private dinner. Abramoff did 4 years in Cumberland Federal prison in Maryland. I knew some guys who were locked up with Abramoff. They said everything had to be done Jack’s way. They said the officers let Jack do anything he wanted. Jack was one of the most high profile inmates ever locked up in the Federal system, other than Michael Cohen. Jack’s cooperation resulted in 24 convictions of high and low level governmental employees in the George ‘Dubya’ Bush administration, as well as members of Congress. I wasn’t able to infiltrate this event either. If I had I probably would have embarrassed Jack and asked him why he hogged all the kosher prison food in Cumberland.
For G-d, For Country, For Yale, For Anthony Hinton, For Shabtai!
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