From jail to succah

By Jonathan Kalmus, October 27, 2011

An Orthodox prisoner has been released early because he faced extending his sentence by three days unless he broke halachah. The case comes as new guidelines on the needs of Jewish prisoners are taking effect for the first time.

The prisoner, held at HMP Stafford, who has not been identified, was to have been released on Succot, which would have forced him to sign paperwork and travel home by car, all activities forbidden on a Jewish holiday. Because the two-day festival was followed by Shabbat, the prisoner's refusal to leave would have posed a three-day legal problem for prison authorities who cannot detain people beyond their sentence.

But Jewish prison chaplains negotiated a release a day early, in line with a similar practice for prisoners with a Christmas Day release date, who are allowed to leave on December 24.

The Stafford case is thought to be the first early release for a Jewish prisoner and required the use of special measures. West Midlands' prison chaplain Rabbi Shmuel Arkush said the release took a month of fighting prison authorities.

He said: "The fact that you are in prison doesn't mean you can't be religious, and the whole point of prison is to rehabilitate. To put someone in this situation at the beginning of their independent life, is antithetical to rehabilitation."

In the last week, new guidelines on the halachic needs of Jewish prisoners, such as a shofar on Rosh Hashanah, eating meals in a succah and making kiddush on Shabbat, have begun circulating throughout UK prisons. Rev Michael Binstock, director of Jewish Prison Chaplaincy, said the rules would replace grey areas and differing standards for the UK's 200 Jewish prisoners, around five of whom are thought to be strictly Orthodox.

"The previous lack of clarity in spelling out their needs often resulted in heated discussions with the governor and security officers, while they refused to accept into the prison provisions such as challah rolls and grape juice for kiddush. Only last week we had to fight for a prisoner to be allowed a lulav and etrog."

A Prison Service spokesperson said the rules were being re-issued "as a Prison Service Instruction providing comprehensive information on a range of faiths and denominations."

Last updated: 10:56am, October 27 2011