David Arenberg had everything going for him. He was smart, the son of a research scientist and a teacher. He graduated in 1980 from the elite University of Chicago with a degree in psychology, and went on to become a left-wing tenants’ rights organiser in New York City for seven years.
But in 1987, he suffered a “personal tragedy” and a “political defeat” that he doesn’t want to discuss but that prompted him to leave his organising work. Always a moderate drug user, he says, he began abusing cocaine and “generally living a seedy life.”
His brother tried to rescue him by recruiting him to run a small trucking company in a western state, and for a time Arenberg did all right. But despite that work, and later taking up tenants’ rights once more, he continued his drug use and also adopted a new line of work — using computers to engage in sophisticated financial ripoffs. Arenberg was arrested and jailed briefly for forgery in 1996, but only became an even more active con man when he was released.
Finally, in 2001, he was arrested for driving under the influence. The arrest led to more serious charges of fraud, forgery, identity theft and vehicle theft, culminating in consecutive sentences totaling more than 13 years. In 2009, with about four years left to serve, Arenberg, 53, was trying to sort his life out. That year, he sent the Intelligence Report the following account of his experiences as a Jew in a state prison — a harrowing tale of surviving severe prejudice in an unforgiving environment, but also the story of a remarkable journey of self-discovery.
Here is that account:
I am always the last person to eat. It’s part of a compromise I worked out with the skinheads who run the western state prison complex where I am incarcerated. Under this compromise, I’m allowed to sit at the whites’ tables, but only after the “heads,” and then the “woods,” and then the “lames” have eaten. I am lower on the totem pole than all of them, the untouchable. I should feel lucky I’m allowed to eat at the whites’ tables at all.
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.
This compromise was brokered by the more “mainstream” Nazis on the yard, the Aryan Brotherhood. They became involved because when I first got here, one of the first cases I handled resulted in my getting a 21-year sentence for one of their members vacated. This gave me instant credibility: even if a “hands-off-the-Jew” policy could not be established, a “hands-off-the-Jewish-lawyer” policy could be and was. It was this factor, I think, more than any other, that has kept me safe here.
UPDATE: The KKK is making a come-back in the US, albeit in a small way. Powerful SBS Dateline report.