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June 23, 1989 - Image 24

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-06-23

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Free To Pray

Are prisoners entitled to religious rights?


porting a new Red Wings
hockey jersey and a pair
of blue jeans, Mike, 25, is
prepared for his leisure
hour at the central com-
plex of the State Prison
of Southern Michigan at
As he does every Shabbat, Mike
goes to the complex's chapel and anx-
iously awaits prison chaplains Rabbi
Bob Shafran of Jackson's rIbmple Beth
Israel and Stacie Schiff Fischer, a na-
tional program director for the B'nai
B'rith International Coalition for
Jewish Prisoner Services. They will
lead a service for six Jewish inmates.
For an hour on Saturday, the in-
mates are Jews first, prisoners se-
cond. The service is their solace. A few
wear kippot. The ark is opened, and
the men rise. An inmate carries the
Torah around the sanctuary.
They chant psalms as Fischer ac-
companies them on her guitar.
Religion is relatively new to Mike,
convicted of armed robbery when he
was 19. At the time, Mike says he was
a mixed-up teenager from a broken
home. Born to non-practicing Jewish
parents, he wishes Judaism had been
a part of his younger years.
"The services bring enlighten-
ment," Mike says. "If I had the
religion before, I wouldn't have done


FRIDAY, JUNE 23, 1989 •


Staff Writer

Services are not as meaningful for
all 12 Jewish inmates at Jackson
prison, the world's largest walled
penitentiary with close to 5,000 in-
mates in three facilities. Since
Jackson was broken down into three
complexes four years ago, only men
assigned to the maximum security
unit where the chapel stands have
been permitted to pray without
guards in a sanctuary. They use sid-
durim and a Torah.
Because of prison rules, the others
— assigned to less stringent security
facilities — are more restricted. In-
mates are not allowed to move from
one prison complex into another.
Prisoners living in complexes
where there is no chapel hold services
in open classrooms. They are heavily
guarded and are limited in religious
supplies, which are stocked in Rabbi
Shafran's office near the chapel.
Hoping to lessen what they call
religious discrimination behind bars,
a few Michiganprisoners' rights ad-
vocates are mustering forces. Among
them are Rabbi Shafran and Fischer,
who are forming the volunteer group,
the Michigan Jewish Prisoner
Outreach Program. Also volunteering
his time is maverick Detroit attorney
Michael Barnhart, who is waging a
class-action fight against the
Michigan Department of Corrections
on behalf of, four prisoners.

"We're talking about First
Amendment rights," Rabbi Shafran
says. "None of this has been a high
priority for anyone at Jackson."
Adds Fischer, "Some of these guys
have done things that are not
forgivable. But they are not all lifers.
And they will get out one day. We are
not asking for sympathy for Jewish
"We are not trying to convince
everybody that these people are all in-
nocent," she says. "We are out to build
whatever community support and
understanding we can. We can't turn
our backs on them and say they can't
be Jews anymore."
Department of Corrections of-
ficials say they allow religious prac-
tices for "recognized religions." But a
recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling —
°Tone vs. Shabbazz — held that a
prison may prohibit certain religious
practices as long as the restriction is
reasonably related to the security
needs of the institution. Jackson of-
ficials continually say they don't like
to transport inmates between
Ironically, attorney Barnhart
says, Jackson's hospital feeds into all
three complexes, and all inmates use
the same hospital. Barnhart, who is
singlehandedly battling the Michigan
Department of Corrections, offered
that argument a few weeks ago before

the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in
Barnhart took the case as pro
bono work because, he says, no one
else would fight for the prisoners. He
estimates he has done more than 700
hours of work on this case.
Formerly a defender with the now
defunct federal legal services depart-
ment, Barnhart has handled several
housing discrimination and non-profit
corporation cases. He jokingly refers
to himself as a "great attorney and a
financial idiot."
Barnhart enjoys this case,
Whitney vs. Brown, Overlooking
the Detroit skyline is his office, filled
with prison files. A cabinet and five
large boxes on the floor are home to
the Jackson case. The rest of the
paper work is stored in a back room.
Whitney vs. Brown was appealed
after a lower court ruled in favor of
the prison, stating Jackson officials
were right in cancelling weekly con-
gregate Shabbat services after the
prison was divided into three com-
plexes. Individual services within
each complex still were permitted.
The original 1986 case was filed
by former Jackson inmate Harry
Whitney, a lifer who has since been
transferred to another state prison.
He and three other prisoners claim-
ed religious discrimination in the

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