Jewish Inmate Seeks Segregation from Anti-Semitic Gangs

A Jewish inmate at California's San Quentin prison says his life is in danger because he's being housed with other white inmates, many of whom belong to anti-Semitic, white supremacist gangs. The inmate is asking the prison to reclassify him from "White" to "Other."

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In California, a new kind of racial problem has surfaced at San Quentin prison. A Jewish inmate there says his life is in danger because he's been classified as white and housed with neo-Nazis and other white supremacists who hate Jews. As NPR's Phillip Martin reports, that's why the prisoner is asking a federal court to change his status from white to other.

PHILLIP MARTIN reporting:

Behind San Quentin's walls, Stefan Leeb(ph) is known as inmate number 60825. Leeb's other identity, as defined by California's strict inmate classification system, is white. And that designation is what he's fighting to change. Speaking by phone as required by the prison, Leeb says when he started observing his Jewish faith and wearing a yarmulke, he ran into immediate problems with other white inmates.

Mr. STEFAN LEEB: The California Department of Corrections was forcing me to be segregated with neo-Nazis, skinheads and the one ethnic group that is overtly inimical to Jews.

MARTIN: Leeb, a graduate of Syracuse University Law School, says he took the only legal recourse open to him. Since California prisons do not allow a separate ethnic classification for Jews, he petitioned to be reclassified as other, the fourth category in a system that also includes Mexican, black and white.

Mr. LEEB: This was a reaction and a response to having my identity as a Jew denied, something that I took for granted my whole life outside prison. And in prison it became clear to me that in order to preserve my identity, this was the only avenue open to me. I tried informally speaking with correctional counselors, with staffs, and basically their response was they're powerless to change anything unless the courts order them to do so.

MARTIN: Leeb, a muscular fair-skinned 48-year-old, has served 23 years of a 25-to-life sentence for murdering an ex-roommate. He's represented in his lawsuit by Ephraim Margolin, a former clerk with Israel's Supreme Court.

Mr. EPHRAIM MARGOLIN: What we are proposing in our litigation is pretty simple. We are proposing that a person in prison has the right to safety, to personal safety. And the racist approach--if you are white, therefore only whites can be housed with you--is inacceptable when there is evidence that those white people may be racist.

Ms. MARGOT BACH (California Corrections Department): Well, we have to take every consideration or concern from an inmate very seriously because we don't want to put them in danger.

MARTIN: Margot Bach is a spokesperson for the California Corrections Department, whose officials are named in Leeb's lawsuit. Bach says the state does all it can, short of changing classifications, to guarantee the safety of inmates.

Ms. BACH: We look at their enemies list. If Mr. Leeb feels that his enemies are white supremacists, that will absolutely be taken into consideration, and he's not going to be housed with those inmates.

MARTIN: But Leeb's lawyers say even if he isn't forced to share a cell with a neo-Nazi, there's still a danger as long as Leeb is housed in the same part of the prison as the other whites. Attorney Ephraim Margolin.

Mr. MARGOLIN: When there is an emergency, when there is a lockdown, he gets locked down with whites. He said, `I have no problem with Asians. I have no problem with blacks. I have no problem with Mexicans. The only people with whom I have problem are whites,' because a very large percentage of whites in California prison, according to him, are racist, the Aryan Brotherhood and what have you.

MARTIN: California's prisons are famous for racial violence. The latest example was a bloody brawl in late August between white and Latino inmates in San Quentin's yard. Authorities responded by locking down the prison, separating inmates along strict racial lines. Charles Carbone, director of the human rights group California Prison Focus, says putting Jewish inmates in segregated lockdown presents an obvious hazard. Carbone supports Leeb's lawsuit.

Mr. CHARLES CARBONE (California Prison Focus): It's very true. In fact, we had an expert testify in our case, and he looked at the prevalence of anti-Semitism in white supremacy. And he noted that there is perhaps more anti-Semitism in white supremacy in prison than anywhere else in the country. And so it's very difficult to be a practicing Jew in that environment because you're constantly butting up against prison gangs like the Nazi Low Riders or the Bull Dogs.

MARTIN: The California Department of Corrections estimates that out of a population of 165,000 inmates, 3 to 4,000 are Jews. Corey Weinstein, a prison doctor in Northern California, says he's been in touch with dozens of prisoners who all describe the same problem.

Dr. COREY WEINSTEIN (Prison Physician): Oh, it's horrifying. I mean, you know, I have spoken to and corresponded with Jewish prisoners in California and elsewhere who have been faced with standing in a cell that they have been assigned to because they know no one on that yard and looking inside the cell and the cell mate has a swastika tattooed on his forehead. I mean, what's that?

MARTIN: US District Judge Claudia Wilken recently acknowledged the threat to Jews in California prisons. In her preliminary ruling on the Leeb case in September, she said it was unreasonable to believe Jews could practice their religion when housed with anti-Semitic gang members. But she declined to make a final judgment pending the outcome of Johnson vs. California. That's the case heard by the US Supreme Court last February challenging California's use of race to make prison housing assignments. Though the high court ruled that the practice was likely unconstitutional, it sent the case back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to demonstrate why California's racial classifications were necessary. California Corrections spokeswoman Margot Bach offers her own explanation.

Ms. BACH: Generally speaking, inmates like to be housed with like inmates. They want to be from the same neighborhood; they want to be from the same geographic area; they want to be of the same racial background in a cell. I'm not saying that this is true in every case, but largely it is.

MARTIN: But Stefan Leeb says having the same skin color does not mean he shares the same racial views or cultural outlook as other white inmates. As a Jew, he says, that places him in a dangerous position in prison. His life has already been threatened.

Mr. LEEB: The accommodation I'm asking for doesn't involve an expenditure of a lot of money or resources. All it takes is on the computer changing my designation from W-H-I for white to O-T-H for other.

MARTIN: Some prison officials do wonder if Leeb is making himself more of a target by pursuing this case in the courts. For now, Leeb is serving out his time sharing a cell with a Vietnamese inmate, who's reportedly so impressed with Leeb's cause that he's studying to convert to Judaism. Phillip Martin, NPR News.

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