A Geek in Prison - A Life Series by Charlie Shrem (Part 6 - On Muslims and Jews)

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This is Part 6 in a series about my life as a Geek in Prison. Click my name to follow me and check out my blog for the Preamble and Parts 1-5. All names are changed to protect inmates privacy.

This is a post I've been wanting to write for a while, even since I was in prison. The following is my personal experience in prison. I do not know what happens in other prisons or county jails rather I am writing about my personal experience.

When I first got to prison I lived in Unit 1, Range 3. This was known as the "Party Range" because at night it was very loud. The Ranges downstairs were quieter and the majority were older folk where my Range had a lot of younger inmates who didn't give a shit about anything.

Basically, the ideal place to put a 24 year old 5'4" kid from Brooklyn.

I grew up in a very religious Jews Orthodox family, went to Yeshivah and studied to be a Rabbi. The advantage of growing up in Brooklyn was that I lived in a giant melting pot of world cultures. My family taught me to be tolerant of other people and having lost family members to religious extremism, I grew up hating any type of intolerance for any religion. At any early age I travelled a lot and became friends with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons and people who identified with Religions that don't even have a Wikipedia page. I may not be religious anymore, but I have an immense about of respect for anyone who pledges their devotion and faith to a higher being.

Thats me. But what about everyone else? What can I expect from other inmates especially in a prison setting where statistically the level of education is a lot lower.

I followed the advice of a friend who spent some time in prison "Respect first and be respected second"

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When I walked into my cube that morning, Omar was praying. His prayer rug was taking up all the the floor space of the cube. How do I act in this scenario? If I just hover at the entrance of the cube, its extremely disrespectful as I don't want him thinking that I'm rushing him. In prison, perception is everything. I left my bags at the entrance and introduced myself to the inmate in the cube a few over, this way I give Omar his space and time to finish praying.

Respect first, be respected second.

Turns out, Omar was one of the leaders of the Lewisburg Muslim community and we got a long great. When you have a lot of time and nothing to do, respectful conversations about religion and politics go really well.

We talked a lot about his learnings growing up and mine. What are his and my views about homosexuality? Punishment? Abortion? Politics? Very heated discussed with wildly different views, but they never turned violent because of the respect we had for each other.

Over the next few weeks I got to know my fellow brethren in the Jewish community and we hung out all the time. Turns out, many of them are good friends with members of the Muslim community as well.

In prison, you are not defined by your religion, you are defined by who you are and how you act towards other people. Having said that, if others know you are a member of a specific community, if you act in a bad way they will judge the community in that way. You represent the people you spend time with.

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We shared resources. The chapel, the kitchen, various rooms to pray were all shared by all the religions.

On Friday evening, we had our Sabbath services around 530pm. This was our time set by the chaplain on the official schedule. We liked our seating a certain way and the Muslim community that had services from 430-530pm liked their setting arrangement differently than ours.

When we walked into the chapel at 530pm, the Muslim community was reorganizing the chairs from their seating arrangements to ours to save us set up time. This was respect.

During a Muslim holiday, they asked us if they could use the chapel during our regular services. Of course we agreed, this was respect.

Respecting our fellow man for who they are and not by stereotypes goes a long way in how they treat you back.

Maybe the world can learn a few lessons from my time in Prison.

What are your thoughts? Im always responding in the comments!

Until next time, Shalom and Salaam

-Charlie

(Photos courtesy of KPBS.org)

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