PITTSBURGH — A Jewish inmate serving time at Belmont Correctional Institution in St. Clairsville, Ohio, has accused the facility’s lead chaplain of several acts of religious discrimination, including the denial of opportunities for worship and the withholding of religious items including tefillin, kippot and Jewish books.
Paul Marcel-Rene, who was convicted of procuring and promoting prostitution stemming from a 2013 arrest, has written and disseminated a two-page letter in which he describes compound incidents of purported inappropriate behavior toward Jewish inmates on the part of the prison’s chaplain, an evangelical pastor who reportedly is married to a Messianic Jew.
Neither the chaplain nor the religious services administrator at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction were available to comment for this article. A spokesman indicated that the department is “looking into the situation.”
In the letter, Marcel-Rene accuses the chaplain of disposing of religious objects sent to the prison by outside organizations for the use of Jewish prisoners, telling prisoners that the study of Hebrew is evil, and denying Jewish prisoners access to matzah and grape juice donated for their religious use, while diverting those goods for use by Christians.
The letter further alleges that the chaplain has denied the inmates the opportunity for prayer, including the use of a room for Yom Kippur worship last October.
Marcel-Rene also contends that he and other Jewish inmates have been denied the use of the one pair of tefillin which had been donated to one of the prisoners.
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute, northeast regional headquarters, also received the letter from Marcel-Rene.
The Aleph Institute is a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement that offers a variety of services to imprisoned Jewish men and women and their families. Vogel’s region includes Ohio.
Vogel has investigated the claim about the denial of tefillin.
“I am aware of the misunderstanding with tefillin,” Vogel said, adding that federal, state and county systems all permit tefillin to be used by prisoners. “The policy is that all inmates can have their own tefillin.”
The issue is being addressed by the Offices of Religious Services at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Vogel said, and “the inmates, as of last week, were told that the tefillin request has been approved.”
“We have spoken to the chaplaincy department at Belmont, and they are now looking into ways to facilitate all Jewish holidays,” he added.
The chaplain’s treatment of Jewish prisoners may be motivated by the intensity of his own faith, said Vogel, which may need to be tempered while serving the role of a chaplain to those of other faiths.
“I think a chaplain who works in the prison system naturally believes in his faith and doctrine, and would like to see everyone join in his faith,” Vogel said. “But sometimes that needs balancing.”
Vogel has been in communication with Mike Davis, religious services administrator at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, concerning the issues raised in Marcel-Rene’s letter.
Davis was not available to comment.
“The DRC is aware of the allegations and we are currently looking into the situation,” wrote Grant Doepel, deputy communications chief at the ODRC, in an email.
“We are encouraged by Columbus, [the seat of the ODRC], looking into it, and [the chaplain’s] encouragement that he won’t allow his religious beliefs to get in the way of other religions,” Vogel said. n
Toby Tabachnick is senior staff writer of the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh.