October 22, 2018

A Pesach plea for prison reform

Last week, here in Los Angeles, we read with horror of an inmate in a local county jail who was strangled to death in his cell. This inmate had been complaining to a judge that he was being “hassled” by other inmates. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions have plagued L.A. County’s jails for more than 30 years, along with a culture of violence and fear that includes prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and the use of excessive force by deputies.

Too often in recent years, state prisons have been used to house lower-level offenders and parole violators, which wastes money due to the costs of state prisons, aggravates already overcrowded conditions and hinders rehabilitation, because facilities can’t adequately serve so many inmates. Furthermore, while parole boards need some autonomy and flexibility in their decisions, those decisions also can’t be arbitrary. The Chowchilla kidnappers case, for example, is a case in California that may continue to be an arbitrary denial of parole. No children were hurt when these three men kidnapped a bus in 1976, yet they continue to be denied parole 35 years later.

This Chowchilla case is just one of the vast array of problems in the broken California penal system putting a strain on the state’s budget and welfare. It was recently found, for example, that the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium Level II correctional facility in Norco, Calif., was built to hold 1,800 inmates, but now holds more than 4,700 and is almost always under lockdown to prevent fights due to overcrowding. Parts of the buildings, built in the 1920s, are so outdated that electricity is shut off during rainstorms to ensure that prisoners aren’t electrocuted. It has been reported that the facility is understaffed by 75 guards, and its rehabilitation program for drug use has a three-month waiting list.

Over the past few decades, California has engaged in minimal reform for its prisons and yet has enacted tougher laws that put more people behind bars for longer times. More and more policies, notably the “three strikes” law mandating prison for life after three or more felony convictions, are created to follow an ethos that the goal of incarceration is punishment alone.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget cuts may bring promise for the expansion of community-based alternatives to incarceration, which have been shown to reduce crime and long-term recidivism (such as in Missouri, for example).

For now, conditions in our prisons remain extremely dangerous for the incarcerated. Many prisoners keep knives in body cavities, one ex-convict told me last week, to ensure they can protect themselves from brutal prison violence and rape. This horrific description haunts me.

Supermax prisons engaging in solitary confinement in the United States, in particular, are some of the most miserable places on earth. Impenetrable cement cells, where prisoners are fed through a hole, and the bare minimum of exercise are the norm for those residing in these 6-by-8-foot cells. Such conditions are not only inhumane, they bring on and worsen mental disabilities and raise the recidivism rate.

Federal, state and local governments must seek alternatives to incarceration to ensure more humane options, to reduce overcrowding and to cut budget costs. Incarcerating just one inmate costs about $30,000 per year, according to the Pew Center, and often perpetuates further criminal activity. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the United States has the highest incarceration rate and largest prison population of any country in the world.

Prisons have only gotten worse in modern times. Michel Foucault, the 20th century French philosopher, argued that the penal system had shifted from regulating one’s body, by means such as torture and corporal punishment, and replaced it with “technologies of punishment” regulating thoughts and behavior, by means such as strict surveillance and psychological abuse. This “disciplinary punishment” provides a potential abuse of power on the part of the parole officer, jailer, psychologist and program facilitator over the prisoner.

The inhumanity of today’s incarceration has no place in the Jewish tradition — aside from temporary pretrial detention (mishmar), the Torah has no model for prison and only provides a number of alternatives. The only exception is a brief period when the rabbis, under Roman influence, instituted a kipa, or temporary jail.

One biblical alternative proposed is that of the eved k’na’ani laborer, whom the Talmud requires be treated like his master. This is to ensure his dignity not be lessened in the process of repairing the wrong committed as he gives back to society. Another model, the “City of Refuge” (Ir Hamiklat), provides for the unintentional murderer a protective community operating much like a normal city.

The Jewish commitment to human dignity, even for those who have erred, can inspire us to affirm more of the alternatives to incarceration that exist in America today, such as: work crews, electronic monitoring, probation, educational sentencing programs, drug rehabilitation and house arrest. These less-expensive options work to address systemic problems in more sustainable and moral ways.

As we approach Passover, we can recall Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s (Netziv) teaching on Exodus 2:25 about the spiritual dangers of overcrowding in narrow spaces: “It is known that a wide-open living space widens one’s mind, and thus the opposite, a crowded living space and lots of people together, degrades one’s mind. Pharaoh strove to degrade the minds of the Israelites, and so he would press them in one place.” Scholars today argue that overcrowding narrow spaces is a great causal factor of prison rape. A cage can transform a man into a beast.

Slavery in Egypt was like an overcrowded jail that destroyed the minds of its inhabitants. The Netziv taught that conditions became so bad that it was clear that God needed to liberate these people. Today, we can emulate the Divine — we must hear the cries of those in very narrow spaces and advocate for more alternatives to the failing model that exists in today’s prisons.

When we are called upon this Passover to remember the foreigners living in our midst, we can think of the approximately 31,000 noncitizens, including children, held in immigration detention in America on any given day. Most especially, we can remember the few hundred immigrants, mostly children, who have died in incarceration, many of whose deaths can be attributed to medical neglect.

Rav Soloveitchik taught, “The halachah is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries, but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life.” It is time that those committed to Jewish law and values work to transform prisons in America, one of the greatest human rights problems in California and the United States.

We must be sure to maintain adequate and effective punishments for crimes, yes, but we must also remember and retain our feel for nuance in societal realities and cling to our tradition’s value of compassion for the dignity of all human beings, even of criminals.

This Passover, may we remind ourselves of those trapped in the darkest and narrowest straits.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and a fifth-year doctoral candidate in moral psychology and epistemology at Columbia University. utzedek.org