When Rabbi Heather Miller visited a jail for the first time in February, the conditions took her by surprise.
“I saw grown men who society demonizes as villains, like in the movies, [holding] their arms inside of their shirts because they are cold,” she said.
Refrigerator space was so scarce that incarcerated mothers who were pumping breast milk had to have relatives retrieve it every other day.
Thinking additional fridge space would provide a simple solution, “I was surprised by the amount of resistance expressed over this idea,” Miller said.
Now she is working to solve such problems. Miller, 38, is one of nine members of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, a panel created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last year in the wake of a corruption scandal that led to a prison term for former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca.
The commission, which first met in January, aims to foster transparency and increase trust between communities and the Sheriff’s Department. It advises both the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Department but does not have subpoena power.
“She sees every person as inherently valuable.” — Priscilla Ocen
Each of the county’s five supervisors appointed one commissioner, with community groups nominating the other four. Miller was nominated by the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, which is part of Dignity and Power Now, a group of 19 community organizations fighting jail violence and mass incarceration.
Mark-Anthony Johnson, the coalition’s director of health and wellness, said the group suggested Miller because she “has strong moral and ethical precision, ties to community organizations and a clear barometer for justice.”
A Los Angeles native, Miller is a rabbi and director of education at Beth Chayim Chadashim in L.A. She also works at Temple Israel of Hollywood as a b’nai mitzvah educator. She was ordained in 2008 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She also serves on the advisory board of the Liberty Hill Foundation — which donates to grass-roots organizations supporting social justice — and is active in the Black-Jewish Justice Alliance of CLUE-LA (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice).
Miller’s work on the oversight panel has earned high praise from fellow commissioner Priscilla Ocen, a Loyola Law School professor. “The way that she talks to people, the way that she sees every person as inherently valuable, I think that speaks to her religious faith in a way that quoting Scripture can’t,” Ocen said.
When the commission had open positions, Miller wanted to make sure the panel encouraged former convicts to apply. “She is concerned about having an equitable commission, top to bottom,” Ocen said, “not just in terms of our public presentations and our public positions, but in terms of how we are constituted.
Miller has long been interested in social justice issues. Before rabbinical school, she delved into peace studies, Jewish history and Africana studies at Wellesley College. She said her motivation for serving on the commission derives from the tradition of Abraham in Genesis taking a stand by uttering, “Hineini” (“Here I am”) in response to God.
“My work as a commissioner is first and foremost about being present, getting out in front of all the stakeholders involved and hearing their experiences,” she said in an email.
Miller believes it is a “sacred experience” when members of the public who have faced injustice find the strength to share their stories with the commission. She recalled listening to a woman whose son had died after allegedly hanging himself in jail. The mother brought the noose, which was made from thick bed sheets, to demonstrate that her son could not have made the noose himself without a pair of scissors.
The Sheriff’s Department “alleges that he hung himself in the noose,” said Miller, who noted that the mother asked commissioners to “question every single custody death described as a suicide.”
Miller said hearing such stories makes her feel the weight of her responsibility and the trust placed in her by the public, adding that she draws on her rabbinical training in her work for the commission. “Rabbis are trained in judicial discernment of facts, arguments and logic,” she said. “I use these skills to parse cases presented to me.”