Sisterhood in the Big House

As she enters her 23rd year in prison, Doris Roldan realizes that she has two choices: she can wallow in self-pity or she can continue to have hope.

On Tuesday evening, Sept. 30, while standing in front of her fellow inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW), Roldan made her choice: "My body is incarcerated but I will not allow my mind, heart or soul to be in prison," Roldan said.

Roldan is one of 26 members of the Shalom Sisterhood, a group of inmates that meets twice a month for Jewish study at the Chino maximum-security prison, who participated in a joint Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur service. The event, which was attended by an equal number of supporters and prisoners, was the seventh of its kind sponsored by the Jewish Committee for Personal Service (JCPS), a service of Gateways Hospital, which "assists Jews in jails, prisons and mental hospitals to maintain their connection to Judaism and the Jewish community."

Before the service began, Judith Sable, director of JCPS, welcomed the volunteers and asked for their continued support.

"We’ve got to get out there in the Jewish community that doesn’t believe there are Jewish inmates," Sable said. "We’ve got to do some shanda-busting."

With only 30 minutes to conduct two services, Rabbi Paul Dubin, executive vice president emeritus of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and volunteer Jewish chaplain at CIW, chose to touch on the central themes of each holiday. He spoke about and blew the shofar and he then asked several inmates to read their personal thoughts on teshuvah from books that they assembled before the service.

Jeri Becker, an inmate who was convicted of first-degree murder when her companion killed a drug dealer, has been widely recognized for her rehabilitation. Becker was denied parole last year and is serving her 23rd year in prison.

She read, "I have come to believe that forgiveness is the highest expression of charity. It would be impossible for me to survive this prison environment and maintain my faith in God, love for humanity and joy in living without daily working on expanding my capacity to forgive."

Emelie Bose, an inmate whose mother and sister were also present at the service said, "Rosh Hashanah is the perfect time for me to start over, for it is a new year. I will take this time to remember what I did to get here and how to prevent myself from ever repeating the same mistakes. The best apology I can make is doing whatever it takes to not have to ask for forgiveness again."

After the service all attendees joined in a buffet-style meal donated by Gateways and Art’s Deli — a semiannual break from the low-quality prison food that the inmates normally endure.

"At least we can let them know that at least for this day, they are redeemed," said Golda Mendelsohn, a supporter who has attended various services with the Shalom Sisterhood.