Passover, which begins this year at sundown on April 19, commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to freedom. Even so, it’s a big deal among the unfree at the medium-security federal prison in Otisville, about 75 miles upstate, which is known for its well-attended and rigorously run Seders. “Otisville is very close to New York City, so it has more access to a Jewish population, to rabbis, and to kosher food,” says Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison programs for the Jewish-outreach Aleph Institute. “The Bureau of Prisons kind of unofficially designated it to meet the needs of Orthodox Jews.”
Considered a haven for white-collar criminals (ImClone’s Sam Waksal and the disgraced financier Martin Frankel, both Jewish, served time there), Otisville is one of only a handful of federal institutions to have a full-time Jewish chaplain. It also boasts a kosher kitchen and weekly Shabbat services, religious perks that led Forbes to name it one of the “12 Best Places to Go to Prison.” This year, about four dozen prisoners will sit down to kosher-for-Passover chicken, potatoes, and the Pesach fixings—horseradish, handmade matzo, boiled eggs—for a full, inmate-led Seder.
Otisville’s Seders are held in the prison’s cafeteria; the festival meal is served on white tablecloths in airplane-style prepackaged trays. Each participant gets his own Haggadah, and the prison provides the necessary items—shank bones, charoset—for a Seder plate. It’s unclear how many of Otisville’s 1,189 inmates are Jewish. The warden says 58; Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, says it’s at least twice that. In the past, prisoners paid to be bussed in from other institutions for Passover, though this practice has stopped as similar services have been introduced elsewhere. Otisville still offers one of the more traditional Seders in the prison system.
“Once you’ve been at a prison Seder, it’ll never be the same on the outside,” says Friedman. “The Haggadah has a line that reads ‘Tonight we are all free men,’ and for the duration of the Seder, they are.” Sort of: Where the Seder calls for four cups of wine, at Otisville, says the warden, “they get four cups of grape juice.”