October 17, 2018

This matzah is kept under lock and key. So are the people who will eat it.

A few weeks before Passover, there was a moment when Shirley Friedman looked worried that there might not be enough food for everybody.

Friedman, who calls herself “a full-time grandmother,” is expecting to feed three dozen people over the first two nights of Passover at her table at home — but on that Thursday morning, she wasn’t worrying about a problem that could be solved by another trip to the supermarket.

That’s not the way things work in the Los Angeles County Jail system.

“Why do I only have two pallets?” Friedman, asked, eyeing two dense stacks of shrink-wrapped cardboard boxes that had just come out of an industrial-size freezer. The boxes contained Passover food from a large kosher food processing company in New York and cost the county nearly $8,000; the contents were supposed to feed the county jail’s 35 kosher-observant inmates for the eight days of Passover. And Friedman, an Orthodox woman who has been volunteering as a chaplain in the jail for the last 10 years, was on hand to make sure that everything was, well, kosher.

Taking care of the spirits and souls of Southern California’s jailed Jews is a demanding job throughout the year. Passover’s additional requirements take the religious observance to another level of complexity.

“I think it’s the most intensive Jewish holy day inside the prison system, just because it is so logistically complicated,” said Rabbi Lon Moskowitz, who has served as the Jewish chaplain at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo for the past 15 years.

From finding officers to supervise the pre-Passover cleaning of the prison’s two separate Jewish chapels where the communal seders will be held, to training the “supervisor volunteers” to lead them, the effort has kept Moskowitz very busy. “It takes six weeks of eight-hour-day preparation,” Moskowitz said.

Even with all that work in advance, the California state budget situation could still throw a wrench into the works.

“The whole prison system is on what they call a ‘rolling lockdown,’ which means that at any given time, one of the yards that the men live on is locked down,” Moskowitz explained. “Some of the men will actually not be free to walk the 200 to 300 yards from their cell over to the chapel area to participate in a halachic community seder.”

Jewish law — halachah — specifies the date (April 18) and time (after sundown) when a Passover seder is to take place. But in correctional facilities, despite the protections for religious practice provided by the First Amendment, the California administrative code and an 11-year-old federal law that specifically protects prisoners’ religious rights, other laws, rules and regulations can present obstacles to observance.

Rabbi Yossi Carron, senior rabbi in the L.A. County jails for the past eight years, has become adept at balancing these competing requirements.

Carron calls the people he serves “the forgotten Jews,” and he quickly makes clear that not all Jewish prisoners are behind bars for white-collar crimes. “There are rapists and murderers and drug addicts — mostly drug addicts — and armed robbers,” Carron said, “just like the rest of the world. But nobody wants to acknowledge it.”

Dividing his weeks between L.A. County’s cash-strapped jails and one state prison in Corcoran, Carron has learned to stretch his limited time and his limited funds as far as possible — far beyond what would be expected of most rabbis.

There’s no Protestant chaplain, no Catholic chaplain, no imam” at the state prison in Corcoran, Carron explained, so whenever he leads Jewish services, he’s also nominally supervising the other inmate-led religious services. “Otherwise they couldn’t have services at all,” Carron said.

“Rabbi Carron has taken that chaplaincy to an entirely new level of commitment, of involvement, of caring about the inmates and the staff,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Inmates who meet with Carron know his rules. They are not to lie to him, and they must not show up intoxicated at any meeting. But aside from those two strict guidelines, Carron is probably one of the more flexible people in the county jail.

Take Carron’s seder, which he leads using a photocopied haggadah of his own devising. “It’s always about recovery, and how Judaism and recovery fit together, and how we’re expected to be holy,” Carron said.

Carron will lead this year’s seder on April 22, the fourth day of Passover, but he’s not sure how many people will be able to come, nor could he say for certain what they’ll be eating.

Until last year, Carron was able to find caterers to donate food for the seder, but last year, in accordance with a change in jail policy prohibiting any outside food being brought inside, he had to end that practice. Not being able to bring in food from the outside, Carron had to depend on the jail kitchen, which led to a less-than-ideal situation for the Jewish inmates who were not among those keeping kosher.

Some ended up eating meals that were kosher but not kosher for Passover. And they were the lucky ones.

“Some guys, if they weren’t on kosher, they weren’t allowed to come. And that’s wrong,” Carron said. It isn’t clear how that policy has changed this year, if at all.

Which isn’t to say that administrators in charge of running the L.A. County jails aren’t working very hard to accommodate the Jewish inmates interested in celebrating the holy day.

Benson Li, the sheriff’s department manager for food service units in the jail, explained that the Meal Mart-branded kosher for Passover food costs $24.30 per inmate per day. “That’s almost nine times more than the regular meals,” Li said, referring to nonkosher food that most of the 15,000 other inmates eat daily. “We always take care of our religious inmates — whatever it takes.”

On the first night of Passover, this includes a meal of roast chicken, potato kugel and carrot tzimmes. Included in each prisoner’s box are four boxes of grape juice, an Artscroll paperback haggadah and a plastic seder plate with all the fixings, all of them freezer-safe. (The green vegetable on the plate is celery, which freezes better than the alternatives.)

Los Angeles County Bureau of Offender Programs and Services director Karen S. Dalton said her staff attempts to allow inmates to eat communally, “to the extent possible that we can.”

“We have several different housing areas where the inmates who are Jewish live,” Dalton said. “In many of them, there’s only one Jewish inmate. If they’re housed in the same area, same pod, same everything, they can sit at the same table and eat together.”

Even Friedman, the Orthodox volunteer chaplain, admitted that a degree of flexibility is required on certain matters — like having non-Jews heat up food on Shabbat for Jewish inmates, which is halachically prohibited.

But Friedman was not willing to compromise as she oversaw 13 people — one officer, one jail dietitian and her intern, five cooks from the different jail facilities and five prisoners in yellow jumpsuits — sort through the Passover food.

Aside from one loading dock guard who called the Passover preparations “mumbo jumbo,” the staff and inmates were efficient and cooperative as they sorted packets of French dressing, individually boxed beef goulash and boxes of matzah into a week’s worth of meals.

When the job was done, there was enough food for the 35 inmates on Friedman’s list — more than enough, actually. The county had ordered food for 40 people, and every prisoner would get about 2,700 calories per prisoner per day, a bit more than the mandated 2,500 calories.

And even though nearly everything was shrink-wrapped, reducing the risk of something contaminating the kosher for Passover food, Friedman kept her eye on everything — including this reporter.

At one point, I approached an inmate named Miguel while he was sorting cream cheese and jam into individual plastic bags. He said he’d never before celebrated Passover.

Then I asked if the Passover food he was packing up looked better than the food he was used to in the jails. His eyes went wide.

“Don’t answer that,” Friedman told Miguel.

He didn’t.