A Jew in Prison
One man’s struggle to survive in a correctional system ruled by the Aryan Brotherhood
image by Tim Gough / www.timgough.org
David Arenberg had everything going for him. He was smart, the son of a research scientist and a teacher. He graduated in 1980 from the elite University of Chicago with a degree in psychology and went on to become a left-wing tenants’ rights organizer in New York City. But in 1987 he suffered a “personal tragedy” and a “political defeat” that he doesn’t want to discuss but that prompted him to leave his organizing work. Always a moderate drug user, he says, he began abusing cocaine. His brother tried to rescue him by recruiting him to run a small trucking company. Despite that work, and later taking up tenants’ rights once more, he continued his drug use and also adopted a new line of work—using computers to engage in sophisticated financial ripoffs.
Arenberg was arrested and jailed briefly for forgery in 1996, but only became an even more active con man when he was released. Finally, in 2001 Arenberg was arrested for driving under the influence. The arrest led to charges of fraud, forgery, identity theft, and vehicle theft, culminating in consecutive sentences totaling more than 13 years. Today, with four years left to serve, Arenberg, 53, is trying to sort out his life. He sent Intelligence Report the following account of his experiences as a Jew in a state prison—a harrowing tale of surviving severe prejudice in an unforgiving environment, but also a remarkable story of self-discovery.
I am always the last person to eat. It’s part of a compromise I worked out with the skinheads who run the western state prison complex where I am incarcerated. Under this compromise, I’m allowed to sit at the whites’ tables, but only after the “heads,” and then the “woods,” and then the “lames” have eaten.
Not that there’s anywhere else I could eat. The prison yard is broken into five distinct racial categories. There are the “woods” (short for peckerwoods) that encompass the whites, the “kinfolk” (blacks), the “Raza” (American-born people of Mexican descent), the “paisas” (Mexico-born Mexicans), and the “chiefs” (Native Americans). Under the rules that govern interracial relations, different races are allowed to play on the same sports teams but not play individual games (e.g., chess) together; they may be in each others’ cubicles if the situation warrants but not sit on each others’ beds. They may go to the same church services but not pray together. But if you accidentally break one of these rules, the consequences are usually pretty mild: You might get a talking to by one of the heads, or, at worst, a “chin check.”
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