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The Lifer Who Changed Lives

He helped 1500 inmates graduate from college.
This story is based closely on a March 2018 article by Alix Wall, published on jweekly.com.

James A. “Sneaky” White is a Jewish man who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. During his almost four decades in prison, James did genuine teshuva (repentance) and dedicated his life to helping his fellow inmates better themselves.

James was born in London around 1940 (the circumstances of his birth are unclear) and adopted by a Jewish couple who raised him in a kosher home in Texas. He attended Texas A & M, but left after three years to join the military. James served 10 years, earning the rank of sergeant, with four tours in Vietnam. He earned multiple medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation mentioned his “uncommon courage, bold initiative and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk.” He was also awarded three silver stars. He got his nickname “Sneaky” after sneaking across a Vietnamese field covered in land mines.

In 1972, James left the military and found it difficult to find work without a college degree. Additionally, at a time of widespread anti-war sentiment, there was great hostility to Vietnam vets. He did construction work and any jobs he could find. In 1978 he married Nancy Napoli, a twice-divorced mother with a violent ex-husband.

Nancy’s ex began threatening her and her new husband. They got a restraining order against him, but that didn’t stop the harassment.

James reached his breaking point in 1980, after learning that Nancy’s violent ex was molesting the stepdaughter of both men (the daughter of Nancy’s first marriage.) When he found out about the abuse, James snapped. He went to the man’s office and shot him dead. Immediately James went to the police station and turned himself in. He later said, “I didn’t think about the consequences at all. I was angry and fed up and wasn’t looking at the ramifications. I had to stop the problem as I saw it.”

Although James was diagnosed with PTSD, it wasn’t widely recognized as a real disorder, and wasn’t mentioned during his trial. He was sentenced to life without parole and sent to Folsom State Prison.

James was a model prisoner. Soon after he got to Folsom, he saved the lives of two inmates who badly injured themselves in the machine shop. Thinking quickly, James applied tourniquets until medics arrived. After being transferred to San Quentin, James came between a guard and inmates who were about to stab him. The guard credited James for saving his life. “I took a life and its affected me ever since, so I’m not going to watch someone else lose their life if I can help it,” James said.

At San Quentin in the late 1980’s, James partnered with Black Panther Geronimo Pratt to start a veterans group for staff and inmates. The warden, also a veteran, said, “San Quentin always had a history of racial segregation, but all races joined the vets group… for the first time ever, different races were eating together in the mess hall.” In addition to the veterans group, James started chapters of AA and NA – even though he himself never struggled with addiction issues.

James read about a study showing that inmates who leave prison with an education have significantly lower recidivism rates. Now at Ironwood prison, decided to set up a college degree program and interviewed applicants. He was selective, explaining “I wouldn’t let them in if they were screwing up on the yard. I had to see the lightbulb come on, for them to say, ‘I want to change my life and I need the tools to do it.’”

The college program James created has helped over 1500 inmates turn their lives around. Juan Acosta is one of James’ many success stories. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he tutored other inmates before his release in 2013. He went on to study electrical engineering at Cal State Northridge and found a good job. Julio remembers, “He gave me a sense of community and taught me about what it means to have community. In prison, it’s every man for himself, and everyone thinks so selfishly, but he taught me to start thinking beyond myself, and to think about helping others. He said to me, ‘If you ever get out someday, you’ll want to be a good citizen, and that starts today.’”

During his decades in prison, James was often the only Jew there. He ordered kosher food, wore a yarmulke, and learned Torah with Jewish chaplains. Rabbi Yonason Denebeim said, “Jim was rough around the edges. Almost his entire adult life was either in the military or in prison, and yet he possessed a depth of character and a level of integrity, maturity and vision that other prisoners I met don’t necessarily exhibit. He has a genuine concern about other inmates, and his desire to assist those who were willing to put in the effort to improve the quality of their lives went far beyond the prison system. That they could then go out into the world and make something of themselves was very important to him.”

Incredibly, James became a prolific charity fundraiser from his prison cell. Because of his volunteer work, he developed a circle of supporters on the outside who were eager to help. He started doing walkathons around the prison yard, and over the years raised a whopping $350,000. James created a culture of charity in prison and inspired many prisoners and guards to contribute to causes such as seeing-eye dogs for veterans and softball leagues for underprivileged girls.

Over the years, many Jewish, veterans and human rights groups have advocated for James’ release. Multiple California governors have rejected the petitions. Rabbi Denebeim was especially frustrated, and remarked upon James’ commitment to atoning for his sins by helping others. “He’s chosen to live with that pain day in and day out, which is not something you find every day. To live with it is very painful, but to say ‘I’m going to hold onto it so I hold on to my humanity’ is quite exceptional.”

In August 2018, multiple advocates spoke on James’ behalf before the parole board in Sacramento. This time, he was unanimously approved for parole. However, his release was delayed for a year while the Los Angeles DA argued unsuccessfully against it.

On January 21, 2020, after 38 years in prison, James “Sneaky” White was released. Chabad Rabbi Mendel Kessler, the Jewish chaplain at Ironwood, said, “Many tried over the years with better connections” to get James released. “It was just what the Almighty wanted, at this time, in this way.”

For helping 1500 inmates earn their college degrees, turn their lives around, and be of service to others, we honor James “Sneaky” White as this week’s Thursday Hero.

With thanks to Alix Wall of the J Jewish News of Northern California for publicizing James’ story, which led to his release.

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