Inmate Wants New Label to Avoid Hate
A Jewish prisoner in San Quentin is demanding that Californiareclassify him from “white” to “non-white,” giving a curious twist to America’slong-shifting attitudes toward Jewish ethnicity and race.
The petitioner is Stephen Liebb, 47, an Orthodox Jew andone-time lawyer, who is serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder.
In a phone call from the maximum-security state prison,Liebb explained the background of his lawsuit against the California Departmentof Corrections, now pending before a federal judge in San Francisco.
When new convicts arrive at the prison receiving center,they are classified by race — white (including Jews), black or Hispanic. Afourth category is “others,” which includes Asians, Pacific Islanders andNative Americans.
“As a ‘white,’ I am assigned to a two-man cell, where mywhite cellie often has a tattooed swastika or SS lightning bolts on his bodyand belongs to the Aryan Brotherhood or Nazi Lowriders,” Liebb said.
He has not been physically attacked, Liebb said, but he hasbeen subject to slurs and insults by inmates, as well as prison guards, and helives in a general environment of intimidation.
Dr. Corey Weinstein, who has been working for 32 years withprisoners as a volunteer physician and for 14 years as a human rights activistwith the California Prison Focus in San Francisco, believes that “you find themost racialized environment in the United States in prisons, and California isone of the worst.”
Under such conditions, “Many Jewish inmates won’t come outas Jews and won’t participate in Jewish services or activities, even thoughthey would like to,” he said.
It is therefore difficult to pinpoint how many among California’s162,000 state prisoners are Jewish, with estimates running from 300 to 1,000.
Contrary to common assumptions, Jews don’t commit justwhite-collar felonies, such as fraud or embezzlement.
“Their crimes run the whole gamut,” Weinstein said.
Liebb’s case is an example. He was raised in an Orthodoxfamily, educated in New York yeshivas, then graduated from Syracuse Universitywith highest honor.
He moved to Los Angeles to study atÂ UCLA Law School,graduating in 1980, according to UCLA records. He passed the bar examination,started to practice law and then the unthinkable happened.
“I had on ongoing dispute with a friend,” Liebb said. “I wasconfused, I had an emotional outburst, I stabbed him once and he died. Thathappened 22 years ago and I have been in different prisons since. I have beenturned down for parole three times.”
For the past 10 years, Liebb has petitioned throughadministrative channels to be reclassified from “white” to “others” withoutsuccess, and is now pursuing his quest through the courts.
His present attorney is Ephraim Margolin, a one-time lawclerk with the Israel Supreme Court, who expects to contest Liebb’s demandagainst the state attorney general’s office within three months before afederal judge.
Margot Bach, spokeswoman for the state Department ofCorrections, which runs the prison system, declined to comment on the Liebbcase specifically. However, she said that on arrival, prisoners have the optionof asking not to be put in the same cell with a potentially hostile cellmate,such as a neo-Nazi, and that authorities would honor such a request.
The case has attracted the attention of David Biale,professor of Jewish history at UC Davis, who served as an expert witness in asimilar, though unsuccessful, case last year.
Before World War II, Biale said, America’s predominantlyAnglo-Saxon and Northern European society considered Jews as nonwhite,alongside Italians and other immigrants from Southern Europe; it’s an attitudestill prevalent among many white prison inmates today.
With the help of Liebb’s family, which sends him prayerbooks, and the Aleph Institute, which aids Jewish prisoners, he is trying hardto maintain his heritage.
“In prison, it is easy for many Jews to become ashamed oftheir Jewishness,” he said. “I appeal to the Jewish community not to be ashamedof us.”
He closed a recent letter by saying, “The Nazis set us apartwith yellow Stars of David with ‘Jude’ written on them. We knew we weredespised, but at least were given our identity. Here [in prison] we are despised,but denied our identity.” Â