Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Who would've thought, a Jewish prison?


Federal Correctional facility at Otisville, N.Y.

Imagine Lawrence Dressler's surprise when fellow inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, N.Y., told him that he was mentioned on the Bill Maher show the night before.  

"At the time the show aired I was eating gefilte fish and lokshen kugel with fellow Sabbath observant felons," Dressler posted on his blog (larrynoodles.com), which is about the lives of wealthy, powerful men he lived in close quarters with at Otisville.

"I was honored to be mentioned on a show that is hosted by a fellow Jew."

Maher was talking about one of America's "10 Cushiest Prisons" according to Forbes magazine. Also called a "castle behind bars," the prison is a low-security campus connected to a 1,200-inmate medium-security complex and houses only 125 inmates-two to a room.

The Otisville prison caught the media's attention when Michael Cohen, President Trump's former lawyer who was sentenced to three years in federal prison on fraud charges, requested to be placed at the resort-like facility.

Inmates, often referred to as the "gold-chain gang," have access to free weights and machine weights, boccie courts, horseshoe pits and even soccer. They can watch HBO, Showtime and Cinemax as late as 2 a.m.

Otisville boasts a full-time Chasidic chaplain, daily minyanim, weekly Shabbat services, and kosher kitchen and vending machines in the visiting room. The prison commissary sells yarmulkes for $6 and offers a kosher selection that includes matzo, gefilte fish, rugelach and seltzer.

Otisville's campus has long been the lockup of choice among Jewish white-collar offenders, including Sheldon Silver, former lawyer and Democratic Party politician who was arrested on federal corruption charges. Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin-CEO of Agriprocessors, a now-bankrupt kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa-was sentenced for bank fraud, and sent to Otisville but serves in the section relegated for people with longer sentences. Bernie Madoff, who received 150 years for his Ponzi scheme, had his request for Otisville denied.

Otisville is known for its well-attended Passover seders. On April 19, about 48 prisoners will observe a seder complete with a Haggadah, kosher-for-Passover chicken, potatoes, and the seder plate. According to Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison programs for the Jewish-outreach Aleph Institute, the Bureau of Prisons "kind of unofficially" designated Otisville as a prison to meet the needs of Orthodox Jews.

"Once you've been at a prison Seder, it'll never be the same on the outside," said Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International. "The Haggadah has a line that reads 'Tonight we are all free men,' and for the duration of the Seder, they are."

"For a Jewish person, there is no place like Otisville," said Earl Seth David, 54, a former inmate who attended kosher meals, religious classes and weekly Shabbos services in the prison shul.

"As a Jew, there's no other prison you can get services like that."


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