60 Days In is an A&E docuseries covering prison and jail life from the perspective of inmates. The series’ first season in 2016 followed seven volunteers who went undercover for 60 days as inmates in the Clark County Jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana. The focus was exposing ongoing illegal activities within the jail confines that correctional officials missed. I recently watched a few episodes, and one thing struck me as I watched a supercut of clips from this series — I didn’t see any Jews.
Anyone who’s ever watched a show about prison is likely aware — on the inside, the subculture divides sharply based on race. Whites stick with whites, Blacks with Blacks, Latinos with Latinos, etc., and then maybe further subdivisions along existing gangs, i.e. Aryan Brotherhood or Skinheads; Bloods or Crips, and on.
One group that exists outside these categories, however, is white Jews. While the most of the rest of the races view them simply as whites, the white gangs do not. Antisemitism is ubiquitous among the white gangs who see Jews as a deeply reviled, inferior race “pretending” to be white. Part of the problem is simply numbers; Jews make up an exceedingly small percentage of the prison population in the United States, and in prison, the only safety is in numbers. This puts white Jews at an inordinate risk once behind bars — they are easily targeted and violence committed against them carries no fear of retribution as it would in other racial groups.
This issue is greatly exacerbated by the simple definition of “Jew” when it comes to the way the prison industry is run. In that definition, Judaism is simply a religious faith. To the prison system as well, Jews are simply another group of “whites.” They don’t have a separate ethnic designation. But when the rest of the whites you’re surrounded by sport SS lightning-bolt and swastika tattoos, there’s certainly no safe harbor for a Jew. The tragic example of Matthew Phillips is a perfect illustration.
In October of 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons purchased the Thomson Correctional Center from the State of Illinois and converted it from a state jail facility into a high-security federal penitentiary to house maximum security inmates. Since its conversion however, it’s been the subject of controversy. NPR did an investigative story on the prison that was published on May 31 titled, “How the newest federal prison became one of the deadliest” which was co-written by NPR news investigations correspondent Joseph Shapiro and Christie Thompson, a writer for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit publication focused on criminal justice. As a result of the article, Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin (D), Tammy Duckworth (D), and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D) called for an investigation by the Justice Dept. on June 9. The article uncovered the deaths of seven inmates in just the last two years — five by homicide, two by suicide — and alleged a long list of abuses by correctional officials there.
According to the article: “The Marshall Project and NPR asked the Bureau of Prisons about multiple lawsuits and claims made in federal court filings out of Thomson, but agency spokesperson Scott Taylor said in an email that he could not comment on pending litigation or individual cases… He noted that to ensure safety, a team of prison officials consider gang affiliation, religion, geography and past incident reports and complaints when assigning cellmates. Intentionally ignoring a known threat from a cellmate would be misconduct by an officer and investigated, Taylor wrote.”
But that also appears to have not been the case, at least as far as Jewish detainee Matthew Phillips was concerned. On March 5, 2020, as he was nearing the end of a 7-year stretch for drug possession with intent to distribute and money laundering, Phillips died as the result of a beating he suffered three days earlier.
“On March 2, 2020, officers put Matthew Phillips — a 31-year-old Jewish man with a large Star of David tattooed on his chest — in a recreation cage with two known members of a white supremacist gang, according to a federal court indictment,” the article details. “The gang members beat and kicked him until he went unconscious. Officers yelled at the men to stop, the indictment says. This wasn’t the first time Phillips had been targeted — he was previously attacked by gang members at Thomson and another prison, according to claims made in a lawsuit… In December 2021, federal prosecutors in Illinois charged the two gang members with committing a hate crime and murder. They both pleaded not guilty and face up to a life sentence if convicted. And this February, the Phillips family filed a federal lawsuit, suing the bureau for failing to prevent Matthew’s death.” According to the indictment of the assailants, both men belonged to the Valhalla Bound Skinheads, a neo-nazi prison gang.
According to an NBC report, Phillips was so badly battered that his parents didn’t recognize him and had to identify him by the tattoo on his chest.
It’s also interesting to note that while the U.S. Thomson penitentiary was designed to house especially violent inmates, Phillips was convicted for non-violent offenses. Why he was incarcerated here specifically isn’t clear according to the reports.
The problem may not only exist in an Illinois vacuum, however. According to Colorado Dept. of Corrections public information officer Annie Skinner, there are currently 655 Jewish inmates across the 21 different facilities in the state correctional system — a little less than 4% of the approximately 17,000 people currently serving time. While the designation of “Jewish” is classified as a purely religious label, Skinner noted that, “the individuals I spoke to who are experts in gangs at our Department have not seen any violence related to an individual being Jewish or hate crimes being perpetrated against individuals who are Jewish.”
If that’s true, it may be a reflection of regional differences in attitude among ethnic subgroups. Or not. According to a Feb. 2021 report by the Steinhardt Research Institute at Brandeis University, Colorado is home to approximately 88,000 Jewish adults, comprising 1.9% of Colorado’s adult population as counted by the Federal Register of the National Archives. Compare that to Illinois, with an adult population of 9.8 million has a Jewish adult population of 319,600, representing 3.3% of the total population.
Yet according to the 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents report published by the Anti Defamation League, Colorado’s overall number of incidents eclipsed that of Illinois by almost 43%. Clearly in this case — antisemitism is a considerably larger issue in Colorado. This disparity, however doesn’t appear to play out in the State of Colorado Correctional system, according to Skinner. It could simply be that Colorado does a better job of managing inmate behavior on the inside.
Unfortunately, we’ve been as yet unable to track down any current or former Jewish inmates in the State of Colorado who are willing to discuss their experiences while incarcerated. We’ll update this column when that changes.
Regardless, one thing is obvious: housing Jews with neo-Nazi gangs should be prohibited at any correctional facility in the nation — something Matthew Phillips’ family can certainly attest to.