A Jewish call for justice for prisoners in solitary

(Matt York/AP) For many of us in the Jewish community, the long-awaited breaking of the Yom Kippur fast signals the … Continued

(Matt York/AP)

For many of us in the Jewish community, the long-awaited breaking of the Yom Kippur fast signals the close of the High Holy Days. But when we end things there, we miss the best chapters the very d nouement –of the season. The culmination of all we have been striving to do, the reward for all our hard work, is happening now in the form of the holiday of Sukkot. We call Sukkot zeman simchateinu the time of our rejoicing and chag hassif a time for harvesting.

During Sukkot we rejoice as we harvest the hard work of the High Holidays. We delight in repentance completed, atonement achieved, relationships renewed, commitments re-energized. Sukkot’s predictable arrival on the heels of YK every year signals Judaism’s indelible optimism that if we are given and if we take the opportunity to work at it we can and will make lasting changes in our lives.

Recently I built a sukkah for Georgetown University with the award-winning architects of BanG Studio. At the same time, I was working with the creators of a PBS documentary caled Herman’s House, a groundbreaking look at solitary confinement in the U.S.. Both projects confront issues of space, design, and repentance — but in radically different ways. On Rosh Hashanah, the sukkah plan was finished, and I learned that the film’s protagonist, Herman Wallace, in solitary for over 40 years, had developed an incurable cancer.

The contrast between my dwelling in our sukkah for a week, and Herman spending his last days in solitary confinement, could not be more stark nor more painful.

For the estimated 80,000 Americans in solitary, indeterminate stays like Herman’s in 6 foot x 9 foot cells with little or no access to daylight, proper health care or nutrition, nor opportunities for socialization or rehabilitation programs, are not unusual. These conditions are an affront to a Jewish sense of justice, which spurns excessive punishment and prioritizes rehabilitation. In fact, isolation induces emotional, mental and physical states that are antithetical to repentance and rehabilitation.

Ironically, solitary was initiated in the 19th century precisely to encourage inmates to repent to turn their thoughts inward and to God, to be filled with remorse, to repent, and eventually to return to society morally cleansed.

But then there’s reality:

When isolated prisoners are asked, they point to anger, hatred, bitterness, boredom, stress, loss of the sense of reality, suicidal thoughts, trouble sleeping, impaired concentration, confusion, depression, and hallucinations. Actions of extreme self mutilation, problems with impulse control, and violent reactions are reported with alarming frequency.

The following excerpt from a recent piece in Tablet magazine is painfully illuminating.

Cesar Francisco Villa, in solitary for 11 years reports:

The 2006 report of the Commission On Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that solitary confinement was related to higher than average recidivism rates. This same report found that “recidivism could be reduced if structured, evidence-based programming and educational opportunities are made available to those in solitary.”

Because it is torture and unambiguously immoral, I stand with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the National Religious Coalition Against Torture and with thousands of clergy across the country in calling for an end to long-term solitary confinement. In the meantime, at the very, very least segregation should not signal total isolation, it should be an absolute last resort, and as 30,000 California prisoners recently demanded during a hunger strike: a more productive form of confinement should be created in giving inmates the opportunity to engage in meaningful socialization, self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities relating to having a sense of being a part of the community.

This year, I encourage us all go out of our homes and find a beautiful, wide-open sukkah. We should dwell in it with those we love in real joy and thanksgiving for the blessings of resilience and repair, forgiveness and rehabilitation in our own lives. As we do, let us not forget those solitary, isolated individuals for whom such blessing lies far beyond the confines of their walls.

Rabbi Rachel Gartner is the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Life at Georgetown University. She is a co-author of the Moving Traditions’“Rosh Hodesh: Its A Girl Thing Sourcebook,” serves on the board of the Reconstructonist Rabbinical Association, and is an active member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.


Rabbi Rachel Gartner Rabbi Rachel Gartner is the Director of Jewish Life at Georgetown University. She is a co-author of "Rosh Hodesh: It's A Girl Thing," and she sits on the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
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