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Jewish Inmate Wants Change to Avoid Supremacists

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

A federal court in San Francisco is hearing a case brought by a Jewish inmate at San Quentin Penitentiary. He's suing to change his identity in prison records from `white' to `other,' the only way, he says, to protect himself from anti-Semitic gangs. The final resolution of the case could impact Jews throughout California's prison system, and it throws into question the very meaning of whiteness. NPR's Phillip Martin reports.

PHILLIP MARTIN reporting:

Behind San Quentin's walls, Stephan Lieb(ph) is known as inmate number 60825. Lieb'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, Lieb says when he started observing his Jewish faith and wearing a yarmulke, he ran into immediate problems with other white inmates.

Mr. STEPHAN LIEB (San Quentin Inmate): The California Department of Corrections was forcing me to be segregated with neo-Nazis, skinheads and the one ethic group that is overtly enemical to Jews.

MARTIN: Lieb, 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. LIEB: This was a reaction and a response to having my identity as a Jew denied. 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 staff, and basically their response was they're powerless to change anything unless the courts order them to do so.

MARTIN: Lieb, 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 (Lieb's Attorney): What we are proposing in our litigation is pretty simple. We are proposing that a person in prison has the right to personal safety, and that 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. MARGO BACH (Spokesperson, 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: Margo Bach is a spokesperson for the California Corrections Department, whose officials are named in Lieb'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. Lieb feels that his enemies are white supremacists, he's not going to be housed with those inmates.

MARTIN: But Lieb'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 Lieb is housed in the same part of the prison as other whites. Attorney Ephraim Margolin.

Mr. MARGOLIN: When there is a lockdown, he gets locked down with whites. The only people with whom I have problems 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 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 Lieb's lawsuit.

Mr. CHARLES CARBONE (Director, California Prison Focus): We had an expert testify in our case, and he looked at the prevalence of anti-Semitism and white supremacy, and he noted that there is perhaps more anti-Semitism and 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 institutional gangs or prison gangs like the Nazi Low Riders or the Bulldogs.

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

Dr. COREY WEINSTEIN (Prison Doctor): You know, I have corresponded with Jewish prisoners in California and elsewhere who have been faced with standing at a cell that they have been assigned to and looking inside the cell, and the cellmate has a swastika tattooed on his forehead. I mean, what's that?

MARTIN: US District Judge Claudia Wilkin recently acknowledged the threat to Jews in California prisons. In her preliminary ruling on the Lieb 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 Margo 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 of the same racial background in a cell.

MARTIN: But what does it mean to be of the same racial background if your skin is white but your faith and culture is Jewish? Prison doctor Corey Weinstein puts it this way.

Dr. WEINSTEIN: In America, white-skin privilege is real, and Jews in America benefit from it. But in the prison system, in facing, you know, the white racist gangs, it's a different story.

MARTIN: And that, says those who are following this case, exposes the delicate nature of race as a social construct, which in the case of Stephan Lieb can be changed with the ease of a keystroke.

Mr. LIEB: 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 Lieb is making himself more of a target by pursuing this case in the courts. For now, Lieb is serving out his time sharing a cell with a Vietnamese inmate who's reportedly so impressed with Lieb's cause that he's starting to convert to Judaism. Phillip Martin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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