Photo by Vadim Vasenin via Depositphotos.

Jewish prisoners at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state have been unable to celebrate Hanukkah for the second straight year after positive COVID-19 cases were found in several of the cell units, resulting in another lockdown. 

On Nov. 24, the entire prison was locked down for eight days after a number of prisoners tested positive for COVID-19, according to Bryan Glant, a member of the Jewish community at MCC. Two more cases emerged early last week, extending the lockdown until mid-December.

“The situation keeps changing here,” reported Glant in a Jpay electronic message, adding that even though nobody in his unit has tested positive so far, they will not be released until everyone tests negative three more times. On the fifth day of the eight-day holiday, Glant reported that a chaplain had said he would come by his unit to allow for a menorah lighting but had not shown up.  He was not sure what the remaining nights of Hanukkah would look like.

The latest cases come amid global concerns about the new omicron strain, the persistence of COVID-19 cases in prisons nationwide, and the refusal by many guards to be vaccinated. At MCC, 70 new positive cases have been confirmed in the last 30 days according to the Washington Department of Corrections.

Last year, holidays were celebrated without visitors. Easter Sunday in April 2020 was moved to December because the institution had been in and out of quarantine. A Native American pow-wow was pushed back twice because of quarantine restrictions. A Buddhist event was also postponed and relocated to accommodate the need for social distancing. The Jewish group, however, had a particularly painful experience because their celebration was canceled altogether despite the several months of planning and preparation. 

People on the outside may not give much thought to how incarcerated individuals observe holidays behind bars. Prisoners, religious leaders and community organizers often spend months planning and fundraising for celebrations which may include time-honored rituals, religious services and festive meals that they can share with friends, family and visitors from the outside. 

These events are particularly important because they allow prisoners to honor and reconnect with their heritage, share their background and culture with others, and simply provide a time and place in which to find comfort and guidance while incarcerated. 

Although I am not a member of the Jewish faith, I’ve been working in the chapel on and off for many years and have  enjoyed being part of the Jewish group’s celebrations as support staff, participant and friend.

In past years before the pandemic, the Jewish group shared a meal, lit a menorah and played games with each other and invited guests from inside and outside the prison.

MCC has a community of around 11 Jewish prisoners, who had been housed together in one cell unit until earlier this year. Before the pandemic, they had planned the biggest celebration yet for Hanukkah, but as the pandemic worsened they had adjusted their expectations. The community had asked permission for a small group to at least light the menorah, but their request had been denied. Instead, a meal was cooked in the prison kitchen, and the food was delivered to their cells for them to eat alone. 

“I felt very dehumanized,” said Glant. “Maybe it was a combination of neglect and indifference on [the prison administration‘s] behalf, but it felt like we were just afterthoughts.”

Glant said he had kept hope that his community would be able to celebrate together in some way this year, but in mid-November he reported that the situation was uncertain. 

“Right now, they have all the Jewish guys separated between four units,” he said. Even if they were not under lockdown, the prison would have required a sponsor to be present at each unit on each of the eight nights.

“Honestly, I just want to be able to have a normal service and enjoy it with my community,” wrote Glant. “I almost dread holidays and services like Hanukkah now because I know that every time it happens, it will become a fight just to make it happen. It‘s so exhausting and so difficult for everybody, and in the end, no one gets what they want.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Christopher Blackwell

Christopher Blackwell is an incarcerated journalist in Washington state, a PJP contributing writer and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the co-founder of Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and works to pass evidence-based criminal justice reform that leads with racial justice. Christopher has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, HuffPost, and many more outlets. He is currently working on a book about solitary confinement. He has been incarcerated for more than half his life. Follow him on Twitter @chriswblackwell.