criminal justice, faith, institutions, literary journalism, murder, prison, violence

My Brother’s Keeper

It is rare that I promote my work–I’m bad at that–but this one is more urgent. In fact, it is quite literally a matter of life and death.

I’d like to bring to your attention my February cover story for Pacific Standard Magazine, “My Brother’s Keeper: When her brother is sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit, one woman takes on the corrosive culture of capital punishment.”

The article describes Terri Been’s fight to save the life of her kid brother, Jeff Wood. A 44-year-old man with a learning disorder and mental health issues, Jeff has languished on death row in Texas for the past 22 years. During trial, Jeff, who drove the getaway car in a robbery, was allowed to basically represent himself. He received no mitigation, and the prosecutor, Lucy Wilke, used the notorious “psychiatrist” James Grigson, also known as Dr. Death, to prove to the jury that Jeff will “with absolute certainty kill again” (even though, as you will learn in the piece, everyone agrees that he never killed anyone in the first place). Grigson agreed to testify, even though he never even met Jeff, let alone examined him.

It is no exaggeration when I say that I have never written a more important, more traumatizing and more time-intensive piece.

Jeff’s execution–his second execution date, in fact–was stayed in 2016 because of the taint of Grigson’s testimony. (His first execution, in 2008, was stayed because of his mental health issues.) Jeff’s family is expecting the courts to respond to their Habeas Corpus petition in the coming weeks. There are two possible outcomes: Either he will be granted a new trial or he’ll receive a third execution date.

I hope you’ll consider my article about Jeff and his family’s struggle.

(Photos by Jérôme Sessini)

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criminal justice, faith, institutions, outsiders, prison

Keeping Kosher in Prison

The Daily Beast:

A Jewish Ex-Con Recalls Keeping Kosher with the Faithful in Prison

By Daniel Genis

As of 2014, 1,500 of New York’s 56,000 prisoners are Jews that keep kosher. If you really believe that all 1500 were avoiding pork before they got behind the wall, you’ve got another thing coming. I am a real Jew, albeit a bad Soviet one, and know something about the community of Jews in prison.

Prison is much more receptive to skinheads and the Nation of Islam, than it is to Jews; and the cops I encountered weren’t too fond of us either. I had to decide very quickly, upon arrival, whether I would practice or not. But my Bar Mitzvah rabbi survived the camps, camps he could have probably avoided because of his Aryan looks. How could I forget his dictate to always be proud to be a Jew, even in circumstances when it might not seem to ones advantage? Perhaps the prisons of New York state were not quite what he meant, but in the end practicing my faith and never denying it only sharpened my will and sense of self. And the community inside, which clings to its rituals and traditions, is strong and cohesive enough that it draws curious new converts. Only in America do prisoners convert to Judaism. Poor old Yakov Smirnov would have said, ‘Vat a country!’

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