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Ending Solitary Confinement in New York Is a Win for Jewish Values
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Opinion

Ending Solitary Confinement in New York Is a Win for Jewish Values

In the Jewish legal system, true justice seeks repentance, not punishment.

Members of T'ruah at a rally held before the pandemic calling for reforms in the use of solitary confinement in the New York State prison system. (Courtesy)
Members of T'ruah at a rally held before the pandemic calling for reforms in the use of solitary confinement in the New York State prison system. (Courtesy)

For seven long years, a coalition of New York rabbis organized by T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, has worked to reform the use of solitary confinement in the prison system in the State of New York, as part of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.

Finally, that work has paid off. The HALT Act — Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement — is now law, fundamentally transforming a system that has done untold damage for far too long.

Solitary confinement is nothing short of torture. It leaves devastating mental, physical and psychological scars. In the American justice system, the disproportionate use of solitary confinement against Black and Latinx people has also served to compound other long-standing systemic injustices.

The HALT Act sets a 15-day limit on stays in solitary and ends the use of solitary altogether for populations that are the most vulnerable, including minors, pregnant women, seniors, and people with mental illness.

But beyond that, the HALT Act also creates a more humane and effective alternative response to people’s needs and behaviors, turning our society away from punishment by deprivation toward active support, programmatic solutions that address specific needs and robust therapy.

Rabbi Lester Bronstein

Anyone separated from the general prison population for longer than the maximum allowable 15 days will now be granted at least seven hours per day out-of-cell with meaningful human contact and programming. HALT also drastically restricts the criteria used to justify isolation or separation to the most egregious conduct.

Moreover, the new law mandates training to equip correctional facility staff to engage more humanely with incarcerated people. It renders more fair the processes that result in separation from the general prison population. And, by providing for both mandatory reporting and outside oversight, it ensures that there will be much greater transparency and accountability than ever before.

Jewish law stresses both the imperative to build a society based on ethical behavior and the simple fact that humanity often falls short. Rather than emphasize punishment, though, our sages have always stressed teshuva, or repentance. Victims and alleged perpetrators are equally created in God’s image; the dignity and safety of both must be preserved. In the Jewish legal system, true justice also demands the successful reintegration of offenders into society after they have completed an appropriate punishment for their acts.

In contrast, the U.S. system emphasizes punishment, often at the expense of repentance or reintegration. Our system of mass incarceration, founded on the twin pillars of institutional racism and the criminalization of poverty, has violence at its core, and the impact of this system goes far beyond the incarcerated person. Someone who has spent an extended period of time in solitary confinement carries that hurt back to their home and their community when released, and it has a lasting impact not only on the individual but on all those around them.

Finally, the State of New York has said enough is enough.

Notably, the HALT Act is not an isolated phenomenon but part of a nationwide shift away from the cruelties of solitary confinement. Rabbis living their Jewish values have played a leading role in the fight to end solitary across the country, and in recent years we’ve seen similar successes in California and New Jersey. Even as we allow ourselves to celebrate a victory seven years in the making, we know that the American justice system still cries out for broader, more consistent reform. We are so grateful to our state legislative leadership, particularly State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins (my senator!) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, for uniting their caucuses to pass this important legislation, and we look forward to partnering with them in the days and years ahead.

Rabbis living their Jewish values have played a leading role in the fight to end solitary across the country.

The number seven has always held great meaning within Judaism. The week of Creation; the shmita or sabbatical year, in which fields are allowed to rest fallow; wedding blessings; days of mourning — over and over, we find and attach meaning to a number that seems to signify cycles of growth, retreat and re-emergence.

That it took seven years of activism to help pass the HALT Act is, of course a coincidence. Better it should have been five years, or two — or not necessary at all.

But those seven years represent themes worth considering: innovation, loss, re-emergence, the opportunity to begin anew.

At the same time, as powerful as the number seven may be, it does not represent completion. Just as the cycles of human existence are never complete, neither is our obligation to build a more just world. We are not done. Every victory is a chance to recommit ourselves to the work.

Tomorrow we continue.

Rabbi Lester Bronstein is vice-chair of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He serves Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains, NY.

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