(JTA) — Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in Jeffrey Epstein’s sex abuse ring, is receiving services from a nonprofit that supports Jewish prisoners.
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.
The nonprofit that is providing services to Maxwell at the Federal Correctional Institute in Florida is called Reaching Out, according to The Sun. It is one of several organizations operated by people affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to serve those who are incarcerated; another, the Aleph Institute, supports prisoners with not only their religious needs while incarcerated but also in seeking clemency or parole.
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.
One of those perks is kosher food, which a man incarcerated in Washington State praised in a 2021 JTA essay as good — “a rarity in prison.” It has not always been available: In the 1980s, a Texas prison canceled its kosher food option, saying that none of the prisoners using it were authentically Jewish — leading to a 1986 Supreme Court case ruling that rabbis, not prison officials, should determine who counts as Jewish. And Florida reintroduced a kosher food program in its prisons only under legal duress in 2013.
In some cases, people who are incarcerated have self-identified as Jewish or even converted to access kosher food. A character on the prison drama “Orange is the New Black” converted for that reason, reportedly prompting inmates as far afield as Scotland to do the same.
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.
Maxwell reportedly made use of her Jewish ancestry a few years ago, when she was alleged to have taken refuge in Israel while under investigation for her role in Epstein’s sex abuse scheme. She was arrested in 2020, convicted in 2021 and sentenced last year on five charges related to sex trafficking of minors as part of a scheme with Epstein, who died by suicide in a New York City jail in 2019.