Lavish jailhouse bar mitzvah not so kosher

June 24, 2009 11:59:12 AM PDT
It was like any other bar mitzvah, complete with kosher food, singing and a reading from the Torah -- except that it was in a Manhattan jailhouse. Security was provided at taxpayer expense by eight correctional officers working overtime. The proud father, a convicted felon who was an inmate, was permitted to swap his jail greens for more festive clothing. The 60 guests ate the catered food with metal forks and knives, chatted on cell phones, and heard Orthodox crooner Yaakov Shwekey.

Now the jailhouse bar mitzvah is at the center of criminal probes into allegations of special treatment of a handful of Jewish inmates and blatant departures from jail rules.

A politically connected jails chaplain, Rabbi Leib Glanz, and one of the city's highest-ranking uniformed correction officers resigned last week. Three other jail officials also have been disciplined, including the warden and the head of the city's jail chaplains, for their role in allowing the bash, said Department of Correction spokesman Stephen Morello.

Yet, in some ways, by the time of the Dec. 30 bar mitzvah, the detention center known as the Tombs had become a place where Jews could expect to be treated well because of the real or perceived influence that Glanz wielded from his chaplain's office at the jail, current and former corrections officers said.

That special treatment appeared to extend to the smallest of comforts: Searches of Jewish inmates' cells would turn up unauthorized food like pistachios, rugelach and pastrami sandwiches, former and current correction officers said.

"The inmates would say, 'We got it from the rabbi,"' said a correction officer at the jail, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals from superiors.

Patrick Ferraiuolo, the president of the Correction Captains' Association, worked at the Tombs for 11 years until 2006 and said the uniformed ranks feared Glanz and would be wary of lodging complaints against him.

"The perception there was that he had such strong political connections that they could be retaliated against," Ferraiuolo said.

Glanz's attorney, Richard A. Finkel, said in a statement after the rabbi's resignation that his client had "made every effort to insure that staff and inmates of the Department of Correction had access to religious ministry and human services irrespective of their religious affiliation."

Allegations about his client's work as a chaplain "have clouded and besmirched his efforts," he said.

Finkel declined to comment beyond the statement; there was no answer at Glanz's home phone in Brooklyn, where he is known as a major figure in the hard-line Satmar sect.

"This staff person chose to leave the department in the face of an investigation," Morello said this week. "It appears he played fast and loose with the department's rules. But the fact is that he's under investigation and he's gone."

Inmates are allowed to have only authorized food, Morello said. He said he had never seen pistachios or rugelach, a Jewish pastry, on official menus. Inmates who identify themselves by faith, such as Jews or Muslims, can receive special diets, he said.

There were 11 Jewish inmates out of an average population of 852 at the Tombs in December, Morello said. There were more than 900 Jewish inmates among the more than 13,000 people in the city's jails at the time.

Appointed during Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration in 2000, Glanz had kept an office at the Tombs for many years and was known as someone staff or inmates could turn to when they needed help or to access religious services.

Gary Friedman, a chaplain who works with Seattle-based Jewish Prisoner Services International, said that most correctional systems have gone a long way toward accommodating Jews. "There was a time when the only way Jewish inmates could get kosher food, they would go to the rabbi who was the jails chaplain," he said.

The city's Department of Investigation -- a watchdog agency that investigates government misconduct -- and the Manhattan district attorney's office are looking into the circumstances behind the bar mitzvah, their spokeswomen said.

The man who officials say hosted December's bar mitzvah, Tuvia Stern, was first admitted to the Tombs on Feb. 19, 2008, transferred to Rikers Island a week later, and brought back to the Tombs a week after that, Morello said. Stern pleaded guilty to grand larceny for his role in a $1.7 million financial scam and is serving up to seven years in prison.

Before he was sent to a state prison in April, Stern was allowed to throw an engagement party for his daughter at the lockup, Morello said. Stern's attorney, Marc Agnifilo, didn't return telephone calls.

Immortalized in movies, stories of inmates getting fancy treats while locked up are legendary. Stories of the Tombs reminded mob expert Jerry Capeci of the 1990 film "Goodfellas," of gangsters feasting on home-cooked Italian food in prison.

But he said it doesn't happen just in the movies.

"Back in the 1990s, a bunch of wiseguys at the federal lockup in Brooklyn were charged with bribing guards to smuggle in home-cooked delicacies on a regular basis," Capeci said.

In that case, guards were accused of smuggling meatballs, manicotti and chicken cutlets -- along with vodka and wine to wash it down -- to purported members of the Colombo and Gambino families.

Ferraiuolo said he didn't blame Glanz for any favoritism at the lockup, but high-ranking jail officials who he said would have had to approve jail guards' overtime and unauthorized guests.

"None of this was a secret in the Manhattan house," he said. "It was done out in the open."

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