California convict smells coffee: Jews not white

A Jewish inmate at California’s San Quentin prison says his life is in danger because he’s being housed with white inmates, many of whom belong to anti-Semitic white supremacist gangs. The inmate is asking prison authorities to reclassify him from “white” to “other.” Stephen Liebb, an Orthodox Jew and UCLA law school graduate, has been imprisoned since 1981 on a murder charge. Since 1995, he has been incarcerated at San Quentin, where he says he has often been forced to live and to pray in close quarters with neo-Nazis and white supremacists covered in swastikas and SS lightning-bolt tattoos.

That’s because Jews are classified as “white” by the prison—one of four ethnic categories (“white,” “black,” “Mexican” and “other”) used for the purpose of housing prisoners and for lockdown situations. Liebb, however, contends that the “white” category has “by far, the highest rate of anti-Semites.”

It is “repugnant to me,” said the native New Yorker and former yeshiva student in a telephone interview from prison. “It’s not only uncomfortable, but it inhibits my practice of Judaism,” added Liebb, who speaks fluent Hebrew and keeps a Jewish calendar on his cell wall. Liebb has filed a complaint about the classification system in federal court.

A similar case has now been filed by a non-Jewish fellow inmate of Liebb’s, Viet Mike Ngo, a Catholic of Vietnamese descent. In a petition filed with the Marin County Superior Court, Ngo criticizes the “racial segregation of inmates” by the California Department of Corrections and San Quentin. He calls the practice a violation of the 14th Amendment and Supreme Court rulings.

“‘Whites’ are routinely assigned cells with ‘whites,’ ‘blacks’ with ‘blacks,’ and ‘Mexicans’ with ‘Mexicans,'” the petition states. “‘Other’ is a category that comprises Vietnamese, Filipino, Colombian, Cuban; certain other groups such as ‘American Indians’ are recognized as a separate entity, as are ‘Hawaiians.’ Thus there is de facto segregation in the housing units by cells.”

Ngo claims that the assignment by race fails to recognize certain ethnicities, thereby denying them equal protection.

“Denying Jews a distinct status like ‘other’ and classifying them as ‘white’ denies a class of persons which historically has been subject to discrimination and prejudice equal protection,” writes Ngo in his petition. “It places one ethnic group in close proximity with the very group most inimical to it.”

Charles Carbone, an attorney in San Francisco for the human-rights organization California Prison Focus, has been monitoring Ngo’s case. “Being a white Jewish prisoner is a very dangerous place to be,” he said. “You’re put amongst hostile, dangerous prisoners” who hate Jews.

Liebb said that while he opposes the prison’s policy of segregation by ethnicity altogether, he hopes the court will at least order the California Department of Corrections to recognize Jews as a distinct category rather than “white.”

Margot Bach, a spokesperson for the CDC, said inmates are classified by race for their own protection and to avoid ethnic tensions. “For instance, if there’s an incident at San Quentin between whites and Hispanics, we’ll probably lockdown ‘whites’ with ‘whites’ and ‘Hispanics’ with ‘Hispanics’ while we investigate,” she said. She added that prisoners are screened upon arrival to avoid placing together those who might have conflicts.

The state attorney general’s office has unsuccessfully requested that the court dismiss Ngo’s petition, claiming that the prison only segregates prisoners for the purpose of security and discipline. (NPR, Nov. 6, 2005; Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, July 19, 2002)

Not that we’re shedding any tears for him, but the recent slaying of convicted JDL terrorist Earl Krugel at an Arizona federal prison seems likely to have been the work of neo-Nazis.

  1. The story on San Quentin inmate Stephen Leibb
    While Mr. Weinberg’s story is very powerful, the information and quotes he included are woefully out of date. There was no attempt to speak with someone in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for updated information/background, and the story erroneously paints a picture of rampant racial segregation. I am quoted in the story, but the quote must be several years old. Please feel free to contact me at CDCR.

    1. As noted…
      one of the only two online sources I could find for this story (after hearing the recent newsclip on NPR) was from 2002. We would like to think things have changed for the better.