‘Companionship or Death’: Jewish Engagement With the Injustice of Solitary Confinement

Advocates set up a mock solitary confinement cell during the first ever congressional hearing on the subject of solitary confinement [CC: Dolores Panales]

If community is a foundation of Jewish life, what does Judaism have to say about solitary confinement, the forcible separation of a person from the community? A few months ago I began an internship with Solitary Watch, an investigative news organization dedicated to reporting on solitary confinement. Once I got started, I became interested in learning more about the work the American Jewish community organizes around this issue.

It turns out there is a lot of work being done, though it started quite recently. Beginning in 2012, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (recently renamed from Rabbis for Human Rights-North America), a coalition of 1,800 rabbis, and Uri L’Tzedek, a prominent liberal Modern Orthodox social justice organization, have both made the issue of solitary confinement a prominent part of their advocacy efforts.

Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment where individuals are subjected to approximately 22-24 hours per day of isolated lockdown in tiny cells. Many Americans mistakenly believe that solitary confinement is used sparingly, only for the most dangerous or threatening prisoners. However, according the American Civil Liberties Union, there are more than 80,000 men, women and children currently in some sort of solitary confinement in United States prisons. Many have a mental illness or cognitive disability, and the majority has been placed there for nonviolent violations of prison rules.

The costs of solitary confinement are much higher than housing inmates in the general prison population. Mississippi recently reduced the number of prisoners it holds in solitary from 1,000 to about 150, and closed down their high-security Supermax unit. According to the ACLU, the reforms are saving Mississippi’s taxpayers approximately $8 million per year.

That economic perspective on solitary confinement is important, but there is a moral perspective to consider as well – and that is where the religious community can add a unique voice to the national conversation.

“We’re looking to provide some moral weight to the solitary confinement conversation by applying Jewish values,” said Shlomo Bolts, a prison consultant from Uri L’Tzedek.

“Sympathy for prisoners is not the most common sentiment amongst the American public. People do not want to be seen as weak or soft on crime,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “In the Torah however, it clearly says that if someone asks for forgiveness three times and you don’t forgive them, then the onus is on you. In Judaism we believe in repentance and that punishments don’t go on forever.”

While Uri L’Tzedek and T’ruah approach the issue of solitary confinement from a distinctly Jewish perspective, the scope of both groups’ work on the issue extends well beyond the Jewish community.

“We don’t want to make this a Jewish issue. We want to make it an American issue. As Americans we’re allowing for it to happen, we’re paying for it with our tax dollars,” said Kahn-Troster.

“We want to apply the Jewish values we learn to help all people,” said Bolts.

The two groups are part of a growing movement against solitary confinement. A feeling that the status quo is simply untenable is circulating in religious communities and among the politically engaged in general; change, while it may not be imminent, feels inevitable.

“This is an exciting time. We really do see ourselves as being a force to help pass legislation to abolish or reduce solitary confinement,” said Bolts.

In June, Senator Dick Durban (D-IL) led a congressional hearing on solitary confinement, the first in American history. The hearing focused on the human rights issues associated with isolation, the economic implications of solitary confinement and the psychological impact on inmates during and after their imprisonment.

Both T’ruah and Uri L’Tzedek contributed written testimony to the hearings. They also participated in the National Day of Fasting, an interfaith effort to raise awareness of the significance of the congressional hearing.

“Fasting serves as a way to repent and bear witness. For me to be at the congressional hearing, sitting with a group of religious leaders fasting was a very powerful experience,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

Fasting also serves as an act of solidarity with prisoners in solitary confinement, for whom hunger strikes are often the only available form of protest.

“I think about the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay [a California Supermax facility]. They get poor food, and then they refuse to eat it in order to draw attention to their situation. When I fasted it really hit home what these people must be going through,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

T’ruah and Uri L’Tzedek are also working with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Founded in 2006 and comprised of more than 300 religious organizations, the campaign organizes protests against different forms of torture employed by the U.S., including those used at sites like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Turning her organization’s focus toward solitary confinement now “seems like a natural outgrowth of our torture work,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster.

Uri L’Tzedek and T’ruah now face the task of motivating American Jews to get more involved with the issue. Despite a history of involvement in a wide variety of social justice causes, the American Jewish community has generally avoided issues of prison reform.

“There is this misconception that Jews are somehow not incarcerated, yet Jews go to prison for the same reasons as everyone else,” said Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, an organization that provides advocacy and spiritual services to Jewish prisoners and their families. Friedman estimates there are approximately 12,000-15,000 Jews in American prisons today, including some in solitary confinement.

Uri L’Tzedek’s approach to raising awareness is a mix of traditional advocacy combined with social science research led by the Tag Institute, a British-based think tank driven by Jewish social values. Among other things, Tag’s research seeks to generate quantitative survey data on the Jewish community’s perceptions of prisons and punitive punishment –and to find the most effective ways of organizing Jewish communities to advocate for humane alternatives to solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, T’ruah is mobilizing its network of 1,800 rabbis to raise the consciousness of members of their respective communities on the issue – and hopefully to inspire some activism about solitary confinement within their communities

As solitary confinement becomes an increasingly mainstream human rights issue, the work of the Jewish community is likely to grow and inspire further activism.

As it says in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), “Either companionship or death.”

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Credit: Rebecca Pierce.