Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Percentage of Jews in Prison is Small, J. F. Fishman Finds

October 8, 1934
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jewish prisoners are as a rule similar to all others confined in penal institutions and vary in few respects from those of other faiths, Joseph Fulling Fishman, American authority on prisons and penal methods, declared in an interview with the Jewish Daily Bulletin.

“In my twenty-six years in this field I have talked with many hundreds of Jewish prisoners,” Mr. Fishman said. “I don’t believe that they vary in many respects from other prisoners. Except in New York, few Jews are imprisoned for crimes of violence.

“During my first years in prison work, penitentiary officials, knowing that I was Jewish, would comment on the exceedingly small number of Jews among the prisoners. But in the last few years I have noticed that the number of Jewish prisoners appears to be on the increase. They are usually model prisoners and seldom are a disciplinary problem to officials.

“It is, however, amazing, how much lower the percentage of Jewish prisoners is as compared to prisoners professing other religions. Even according to population percentages, Jews still have fewer prisoners. This is true even in New York, where the Jewish population is so large.”


English and continental prison systems are far in advance of American methods, Mr. Fishman, who has just returned from a four-month inspection of European prisons, which took him to Italy, Belgium, France and Holland, said.

Mr. Fishman, who was Inspector of Prisons for the Federal government for eleven years, and Deputy Commissioner of Corrections in New York City for two and one-half years, went abroad to make a prison survey for the Guggenheim Foundation.

“While in this country we have kept abreast in prison methods as far as our large institutions are concerned, it must be remembered that we have in the United States 3,500 county jails, which are literally indescribable,” Mr. Fishman said.

“In England, and particularly in Belgium, I found, however, that the smaller institutions, which are invariably criminal training schools for first offenders, have been closed down and attention concentrated on first offenders.

“The English system is examplary. The personnel, both as to guards and wardens is much superior to ours. I don’t think ours would even rate second. They have a fine method of choosing and training their guards, so that they have superior men as prison guards. The men have a sense of dignity and pride in their work which is sadly missing in our men.

“One thing this trip proved to me and that is that the argument frequently heard in the United States that it is impossible to find good men for guards and prison officials is nonsense. Good men can be obtained.

“I was very much impressed by the fine relations between prisoners and guards in the English prisons. There is no bullying by the guards and the prisoners respect prison officials. Over there assaults on guards are unheard of, while on Welfare Island alone 1 remember four such assaults in one week.

“There is no such thing as political pull in obtaining jobs as guards in England. The men are carefully chosen and have a sense of dignity in their work which impressed me highly. As a result they have a good influence on the prisoners and are able to help them in a way that would be impossible in the United States.”

Mr. Fishman was also very warm in his praise of the Belgian penal system.

“About twenty-five years ago,” he said, “a young Belgian psychiatrist became interested in prison problems. After fighting for reforms for fifteen years, he finally managed to institute a scientific system there. There prisoners are handled as individuals. A complete study is made of every prisoner immediately after his arrest with the object of rehabilitating them. A trained psychiatrist is attached to every prison.


“The French system,” Mr. Fishman said, “cannot be compared to ours. Why, they still have the rule of silence there, prisoners being forbidden to talk with each other or with officials for the first two years. A French prison official took me into one of the large prisons and said proudly, ‘see how quiet, not a sound.’ He was actually proud of it. Even in chapel the prisoners sit in enclosed boxes so that they can see the chaplain and he can see the prisoners, but they cannot see each other. We dropped the rule of silence twenty-five years ago.”

Italy, the prison authority declared, was “an armed camp” and a land of starvation, with every third man wearing a uniform and lifting his hand continuously in the Fascist salute. Despite the fact that Mr. Fishman carried letters of recommendation from Secretary of State Cordell Hull and other noted Americans, Italian officials hampered him in many ways and were by no means willing to let him see the working of the Italian penal system.

“About all I can say for the Italian prisons is that they were reasonably clean,” he stated. They feed their prisoners only once a day, macaroni soup and black bread at noon and the next meal is twenty-four hours later. The menu is repeated for 365 days in the year.”

“Has there been much progress in American methods of handling prisoners?” Mr. Fishman was asked.

“In the large institutions, yes,” he answered, “but the county jails, where first offenders are trained in crime, are still horrible. There has been little or no progress in that direction. Cleaning up the large prisons is useless, for by the time a first offender gets to a penitentiary, he is already a finished criminal product.”

Mr. Fishman declared that he expects to spend some time writing another book concerning prisons and one outside his field. He is the author of “Crucibles of Crime” and of the highly controversial “Sex In Prison,” which appeared recently.

Recommended from JTA