In 2009, David Arenberg, a Jewish man serving time in an Arizona maximum security prison for financial fraud and drug use, wrote an article for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report about his daily life. It was about as grim as you might imagine.
It began simply enough:
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.
Arenberg described the complicated race relations—between the “kinfolk” (black prisoners) the “razas” (American-born prisoners of Mexican descent) and the “chiefs” (Native American prisoners) and the “woods” (white prisoners)—as well as the lucrative drug trade inside the prison and the conflict between the established Aryan Brotherhood and the up-and-coming skinheads. Finally, he described his own place: the Aryan Brotherhood’s Jewish lawyer.
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.
Growing up as the son of non-religious parents in Chicago, Arenberg never really considered himself Jewish, until prison.
The oppression I suffered, the alienation and loneliness I felt, and the spiritual thirst that is starting to be quenched, have caused me to finally come into my own. I am a Jew! And this has become my fundamental defeat of the Nazis. Because I have finally come to this bone-deep understanding, I will walk out of the prison gates as a changed man, a man who has returned to the mark after having strayed for so many years. I will have finally come home.
The article got some attention again a few months ago when it resurfaced on several blogs. I reached out to the editor of the Intelligence Report, Mark Potok, to set up an interview with Arenberg. Potok said I could either have Arenberg call me collect or I could mail him a phone card. With no home phone, I thought about giving him my cell. However, according to several prison blogs, AT&T doesn’t accept collect calls from prison because of a contract Verizon has with the U.S. prison system. I decided to mail him a phone card.
After two weeks, Potok called me to apologize. Apparently, the prison had confiscated my phone card. Instead, he gave me Arenberg’s prison mailing address. I printed out a quick letter with several questions and dashed it off.
Two weeks later I received a creased envelope from an Arizona penitentiary. Inside were four double-sided pages written in a careful script, in which Arenberg answered all my questions. Since publishing his article, he explained, there had been a major change in his life: with his October release date approaching, he was moved to a low custody yard—which was much safer. No one wants “to rock the boat by getting in trouble for beating up a Jew,” he wrote.
One of my first questions had been how the other inmates knew he was Jewish, since it doesn’t seem to be a wise thing to advertise.
“My name, David Arenberg,” he answered. “If my name were Moshe Himmelfarb they never would have had a clue. It was the ‘berg’ that did it.”
Arenberg also told me about his background. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1980 and moved to Manhattan’s East Village, at the time, “the hot spot for radicals, activists and bohemians,” he wrote. He became a tenant organizer for Good Old Lower East Side, a neighborhood housing and preservation organization. “For seven years, I was a neighborhood hero known by hundreds upon hundreds of people because I organized rent strikes in about 50 buildings.”
Things soured in the 1990’s. He lost a power struggle in his activist organization, and his cocaine habit—“part of the everyday culture in circles such as mine”—escalated. He misappropriated some of the funds of one of the buildings he managed, and ended up homeless. According to Arenberg, his twin brother, who lived in Arizona, got Arenberg a job working for his messenger company. But Arizona didn’t work for Arenberg.
“I hated everything about the place: its wild west mentality, its right-wing politics, and most importantly, the fact that it was not New York City,” Arenberg wrote. He started using cocaine again and was eventually arrested and charged with fraud, forgery, identity theft, and vehicle theft. In 2001 he was sentenced to 13.75 years in a maximum security prison in Arizona. One night in prison skinheads bashed his face in with socks filled with locks and then rolled him out of bed and kicked his ribs in. “My face was wired together for six weeks,” he wrote.
When I asked him how his experience in prison had changed him, he cited the principle of teshuva—repentance. “It is more accurately translated as ‘return,’ in ‘return to the mark from which you have strayed,” he wrote. “I have returned to my activist roots and it has given me a renewed sense of purpose in life: involvement in criminal justice reform… I will be released from prison… reinvigorated and free from the hopelessness and cynicism that had engulfed me in the past.”
Included in his response was a resume—Arenberg is hoping to work as a paralegal upon his release. “I am a little scared about being reintegrated into society,” he wrote.
Arenberg will be out of prison in October. He’ll be in his late 50s, having served almost his full 13-year sentence. He won’t have any money and he won’t have a job. His parents both died while he was in prison and aside from his twin brother, he’ll be alone.
“Thank you for reaching out to me as you have,” Arenberg’s letter concluded. “You have no idea how much it means to me to be seen by people outside the prison system as being a worthwhile human being with something to offer society, after this much time incarcerated.”
Michael Orbach is a writer living in New York.