Prison and racial segregation: why a Jewish guy eats with the Aryan Brotherhood

From a 2009 Southern Poverty Law Center report, David Arenberg describes his life as a Jewish guy inside a heavily racially segregated state prison where he faces violence and even death if he doesn't eat with the Aryan Brotherhood. Arenberg uses the essay to jump into a harrowing view into the rise of serious, politicized neo-Nazi skinheads in prison -- guys who make the Aryan Brotherhood look like moderates.

Not that there's anywhere else I could eat. The prison yard is broken down into five distinct racial categories and segregation is strictly enforced. There are the "woods" (short for peckerwoods) that encompass the whites, the "kinfolk" (blacks), the "Raza" (American-born people of Mexican descent), the "paisas" (Mexico-born Mexicans), and the "chiefs" (American Indians). Under the strict rules that govern interracial relations, different races are allowed to play on the same sports teams but not play individual games (e.g., chess) together; they may be in each others' cubicles together if the situation warrants but not sit on each others' beds or watch each others' televisions. They may go to the same church services but not pray together. But if you accidentally break one of these rules, the consequences are usually pretty mild: you might get a talking to by one of the heads (who, of course, claims exemption from this rule himself), or at worst, a "chin check."

Eating with another race, however, is a different story. It is an inviolate rule that different races may not break bread together under any circumstances. Violating this rule leads to harsh consequences. If you eat at the same table as another race, you'll get beaten down. If you eat from the same tray as another race, you'll be put in the hospital. And if you eat from the same food item as another race, that is, after another race has already taken a bite of it, you can get killed. This is one area where even the heads don't have any play.

This makes it difficult for me, of course, to fit into the chow hall. Jews, as we all know, are not white but imposters who don white skin and hide inside it for the purpose of polluting and taking over the white race. The skinheads simply can't allow me to eat with them: that would make them traitors of the worst kind — race traitors! But my milky skin and pasty complexion, characteristic of the Eastern European Ashkenazi, make it impossible for me to eat with other races who don't understand the subtleties of my treachery and take me for just another wood. So the compromise is that I may sit at certain white tables after all the whites have finished eating. In exchange, I must do free legal work as directed by the heads (Jewish lawyers, even jailhouse lawyers, are hard to come by in prison) and remit to them a portion of the legal fees I collect from everyone else I do legal work for on the yard.

David Arenberg Reflects on Being Jewish in State Prison (via )