Practicing Judaism in Prison
Is it possible to observe Jewish practices in prison? Yes, but it will probably take more effort than one is accustomed to. Just like it is easier to observe Jewish practices in Brooklyn, New York, than S. Barbara, California, it can still be done. In Brooklyn all the necessary needs for a practicing traditional Jew are readily available and come in many varieties. If one wants to buy kosher food, there is a plethora of stores with every imaginable kind of kosher food. If, however, one lives in S. Barbara, there are no kosher stores. In order to buy kosher food, one has to travel one hundred miles to Los Angeles. Even there, the choice is not as great as Brooklyn. The bottom line is that with the proper effort and planning one can, for instance, keep kosher even in S. Barbara. Likewise, in prison some of the things one would take for granted, now need the appropriate effort and planning. True, it will never be Brooklyn, but it can be done.
Most facilities will make some kind of arrangements for kosher food. If it is really important to someone to have strictly kosher food, the judge should be told before the sentence. The judge can then instruct the appropriate prison that they will be receiving a Jewish inmate who has special dietary needs. These needs will sometimes be accommodated with pre-cooked kosher meals that are sealed, similar to the kosher food served on airlines.
Sabbath and Holidays
Most prisons know about the Jewish Sabbath and the basic idea that work cannot be done on this day. It may be necessary to explain to the chaplain that the Sabbath starts at sundown on Friday and ends at nightfall on Saturday. Likewise, for all the Jewish Holidays. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has designated all Jewish holidays as work proscription days. So, Jewish inmates are not required to go to work on those days. However, just like with everything else in prison, one has to make the appropriate arrangements in advance. A prison facility is like another bureaucracy and so all the necessary paperwork needs to be filed well in advance. Otherwise the Jewish inmate may be expected to go to work on those days.
Many Jews who are not yet particular about kosher food during the year make special efforts during Passover. With the appropriate planning and effort, many prisons will provide prepackaged freeze-dried meals for the eight days of Passover. Likewise, matzoh and grape juice will usually be given. Some facilities will make provisions for the ceremonial Seder meal for Passover.
The prison will attempt to provide a room for Jews for religious services for the Sabbath and holidays. Most will also have the appropriate prayer books and other related Jewish books. If not, it is often possible to have them sent in by a bookstore or family members. These services will usually be led by another inmate.