Rabbis upset over prison restrictions on Hanukkah


A Michigan prison rule that doesn’t allow inmates to handle matches is preventing Jewish inmates from celebrating Hanukkah, said a national humanitarian group.

The rule prevents prisoners from lighting a menorah during the eight-day holiday, which begins Saturday, said the Aleph Institute, based in Surfside, Florida.

“The (corrections) department should have a little compassion,” said Rabbi Menachem Katz, the institute’s director of prison and military outreach. “Instead of trying to figure out a way to work it out, they say no.”

The Department of Corrections’ policy states that a prison can’t possess or have control over candles, lighters or other incendiary devices used during group religious services or activities.

Despite the rule, prison staffers had looked the other way in years past and allowed inmates to light menorahs in prison chapels or group areas, said Katz.

But the DOC cracked down this year after another group asked to have access to matches or lighters, said Katz.

A spokesman for the department denied that was the reason for the crackdown.

The spokesman, Chris Gautz, said the DOC learned the rule wasn’t being followed and put a stop to it.

“We have policies for a reason,” he said. “When we learn they aren’t being adhered to, we remind staff of the policy and that it needs to be followed.”

He said the rule is similar to regulations in other states and in the federal prison system.

Gautz said inmates could continue the practice of lighting menorahs by having a prison staffer or volunteer participate in the ceremony. The staffer or volunteer would remain in possession of the matches or lighter.

Katz said the problem with requiring a prison staffer or volunteer to remain in control of the matches or lighter is that it would require them to attend the ceremony each of the eight days.

If a staffer wasn’t available, the volunteer would need to be approved to visit the prison, said Katz. That would place an onerous and time-consuming burden on the volunteer.

“It is not practical to find a volunteer to come each of the nights of Hanukkah, especially at this late hour,” he said.

Katz said his group had been contacted by a Michigan inmate, and had been in contact with the DOC and governor’s office for several days.