SCI Graterford Dismantles Synagogue

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State Correctional Institution-Graterford’s Memorial Chapel was an exclusive Jewish space, but now that space has been shuttered due to a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) violation.

It was a cool fall evening in 1981 when a group of some nine inmates at State Correctional Institution-Graterford tried to escape. Using ladders, rope and climbing equipment, they attempted to scale the 34-foot-high wall, but were unable to get their gear to work and were spotted by guards.
Armed with handguns, shotguns and plenty of ammunition, four of those who attempted to escape returned to the prison and took 38 hostages, prompting a crisis that lasted five days. Thankfully, the hostage-takers surrendered peacefully, and no one was hurt.
In the following days, officers began a thorough search of the entire prison, including a worship space used by the facility’s roughly 20 Jewish prisoners. Its ark, which was locked, was damaged when officers pried it open.
Damage to a Torah scroll was initially believed to be an act of vandalism perpetrated by the officers involved with the search of the synagogue, and they were charged with destruction of property. But a subsequent investigation, including polygraph tests, exonerated them.
 In August 1982, almost a year after the incident, the state released “The Report of the Governor’s Panel to Investigate the Recent Hostage Incident at Graterford SCI,” which included an investigation into the damaged Torah.
The report, commissioned by Gov. Richard Thornburgh, made three recommendations “for improving the conditions for inmate worship at Graterford.”
One pertained to search procedures of religious areas; another recommended Graterford employ a full-time Muslim clergy member; and one read: “Jewish inmates at Graterford should formally request, and the Bureau should approve, the designation of an area of worship to be used solely by that group.”
In fact, Graterford once had a separate space for Jewish worship.
In a Jewish Exponent report from 1977, the room was described as “a blue-painted shul” with “a scarred ark containing a Torah which has been gnawed by rodents, a ner tamid that has been ripped from its ceiling socket and hangs uselessly by its electrical cords, some chairs, dedication plaques and an embroidered wall-hanging of the Shema with a shattered glass cover.” The windows’ curtains had been stolen.
By 1981, other religious groups were regularly using the room, a situation that didn’t change until 1985, when the Bernard Watman Memorial Chapel was dedicated by the Jewish Congregation at Graterford. It also was for Jews only, one of the only exclusive-use synagogues in any U.S. prison.
Then-superintendent Charles Zimmerman told an Exponent reporter that Jewish inmates needed a place of their own because “the goodness generated has an impact on the prison population as a whole.”
In 1987, the congregation was officially recognized by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — the first synagogue in North America to have that honor.
Since then, the size of the prison’s Jewish population has waxed and waned. In 1990, there were roughly 20 Jewish inmates; today, there are 10. Jewish worship has not been held in the synagogue since 1997, when correctional officials, citing safety issues with the Watman Memorial Chapel, demanded that Jewish inmates share prayer space with the prison’s Muslim population instead.
Despite initial concerns, the arrangement succeeded, with the two religious groups working hand in hand. The Memorial Chapel remained an exclusive Jewish space, however, with a large library.
Now that space has been shuttered due to a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) violation. The 2012 act stipulates the use of video monitoring to “protect inmates against sexual abuse,” including in areas “where staff or inmates may be isolated.”
“We are routinely audited by individuals who are certified by the Department of Justice to conduct such audits, and our own Central Office staff visits and reviews institutional operations on a regular basis,” said Graterford Public Information Officer Wendy Shaylor, of PREA compliance. “[The Watman Chapel] was recently listed and noted as a very vulnerable area, with no direct lines of sight nor video surveillance abilities. Therefore, closing down the area now used as the synagogue is necessary to ensure inmate and staff safety.”
Members of the Jewish community outside the prison, including longtime Graterford volunteer and outside coordinator Robert Lankin, offered to pay for cameras to be installed so that the space would remain accessible.
“This offer has been refused,” Lankin said, “because in the opinion of Rev. [Ulli] Klemm, [the Religion, Volunteer and Recreational Services Program Administrator], SCI Phoenix will be ready for occupancy in six months and, even though the cameras would be paid for, the prison does not wish to expend resources including staff time, as Graterford will be closing soon.”
Klemm did not return a call for comment as of press time.
SCI Phoenix is under construction on the grounds of SCI Graterford; when completed, it will take the place of Graterford and allow that old prison to be mothballed. Shaylor confirmed that the official target completion date is “within six to nine months.”
But that timetable may be optimistic: It was slated to be finished years ago, but got held up by political wrangling.
The state’s website says, “Construction is due to be completed later in 2015.”
Meantime, Lankin wondered, “What happens to the books, holy objects, memorial plaques, records, tallasim, kipot, pots, pans, office furniture and other property of the congregation? The prison, with breathtaking speed, ordered the property of the synagogue packed up pending unknown disposition.”
Much of the synagogue’s property legally belongs to Jewish Congregation at Graterford, Inc., a Pennsylvania corporation solely owned by four members at Beth Sholom Congregation, one of whom is Lankin.
Klemm told Lankin there are four options for the synagogue items: remove them; move them to SCI Phoenix, if there’s room; offer them to other correctional facilities; or discard them.
Though some of those options seems harsh, Lankin has learned that there are no plans for a synagogue or exclusive-use space for Jewish prisoners at SCI Phoenix.
Shaylor confirmed this: “There will be a multidenominational space for all represented faith traditions to worship,” she said. “To my knowledge, no other institution provides space for specific faith groups.”
Lankin feels strongly that current officials should honor the recommendation of the 1981 Thornburgh report.
“[The DOC] is always going to say, ‘Well, nowhere in Pennsylvania does any one religion have its own room, and they’re correct. The Seventh Day Adventists don’t have their own room, the Christian Scientists don’t have their own room, the Catholics don’t have their own room,” Lankin said. “But that’s not the issue here. The issue is that our Torahs were defaced, and the government said we need our own room. The government made recommendations which were accepted by the DOC.”
Lankin made the 1981 report available to various officials at the DOC.
“When I told them about the document, they asked me for a copy,” he said. “They didn’t even know about it. We have to give them an opportunity to examine it and determine how it applies today. They can accept or reject any recommendations they please. But I’d like to know, if they are no longer accepting that recommendation, what other recommendations in that 70 pages are they not accepting?”
Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said this situation is tricky.
“All religious groups should have the ability to do the same thing service-wise. We’re really focused on the idea of parity,” she said. At the same time, “Graterford is unique. A lot of the artifacts belong to an outside congregation, and the actual Torahs that are there do need to be kept in a safe place and stored properly so they can last. It’s hard when any kind of group, faith-based or not, has been using a space that they consider to be important to religious worship for a 30-year period to be told it’s going to be closed.”
“The Jewish community needs to speak out in the strongest terms, that we expect the accommodation which was arranged at that time to be honored at SCI Phoenix,” Lankin said.
Contact: [email protected];215-832-0747
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Liz Spikol is the Jewish Exponent's editor in chief; she has worked for the publication for four years. Prior to that she was at Philadelphia magazine, Curbed Philly and the before-its-time Tek Lado, a magazine for bilingual Latinx geeks. She is active in the American Jewish Press Association and contributes to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week and Phoenix Jewish News. A Philly native, Spikol got a bachelor's degree at Oberlin College and a master's at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Mt. Airy.

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