Maxwell, whose father was Jewish, did not publicly identify as Jewish previously and is not considered Jewish under traditional Jewish law. The news was first reported by The Sun, a British newspaper, which said that Maxwell “has been rewarded with better food and more time off work.”
U.S. prisons are obligated to honor inmates’ religious obligations in most cases — meaning that Jews are often given access to kosher food, prayer supplies and changes in work schedules to account for Shabbat and holidays.
Prisons also offer services based on inmates’ self-identified religions, although chaplains may be asked to certify whether inmates hold sincere religious beliefs. (Certification requirements have faced legal challenges.) Sometimes the services are provided by nonprofit groups, even when the prisons employ religious chaplains of their own.
Chabad is one of the most extensive purveyors of services to Jewish prisoners across the United States, in keeping with its mission to bring as many Jews as possible closer to their religion.
“We’re not helping them get out of prison, we’re helping them spiritually — to bring them to a state of mind which had they had exposure to, maybe they wouldn’t have done what they did,” Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, now an Aleph Institute director, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2009.
Other organizations supporting Jewish prisoners include Jewish Prisoner Services International, founded in 1984 by B’nai Brith, and a newer group, Matir Asurim, founded by rabbis affiliated with Reconstructing Judaism. Its name comes from the prayer thanking God for setting free those who are imprisoned.
While the exact number of prisoners who identify as Jewish is unknown, the number appears to have risen over time. (That number played a bit part in deliberations over sentencing for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, condemned last week to death.) A chaplain working in the New York state prison system told JTA in 2009 that the rise reflected a growing sense that Jewish prisoners had access to more perks.
Maxwell’s claim to a Jewish identity runs through her father, a media magnate and possible spy who fled the Nazis as a child and was buried in Jerusalem after dying under mysterious circumstances in 1991.