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The Jewish Case for Prison Reform

What the Lubavitcher Rebbe understood about the criminal justice system

Yisrael Eliashiv
August 16, 2023
Aleph’s founder, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, with a prison inmate, 1980s

Courtesy The Aleph Institute

Aleph’s founder, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, with a prison inmate, 1980s

Courtesy The Aleph Institute

Current American debates about crime and justice center around either-or propositions. Either we support the institutions of law and order embodied by police and prisons or we support the criminal justice overhauls aimed at reforming—in some cases abolishing—those institutions. Either we want to live in safe cities free from the threat of violence and theft, or we oppose inhumane prison conditions. We can sympathize with the victims of crimes or with the victims of a cruel system, but not both. Simply put, we are told that we have to choose between peace and justice.

On one side of the ledger are the scenes of out-of-control violence and disorder in cities like Oakland and Chicago. On the other is the constant stream of news stories and viral videos highlighting the abuses of the criminal justice system. This polarized vision, split along partisan lines, is a trap—the kind of false binary that our contemporary political culture specializes in producing, but it can be escaped by turning away from politics for a moment and considering the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. The Rebbe, as he is universally known to his followers in the Chabad movement, was both a passionate advocate for prison reform and a supporter of law and order.

In 1968, in the aftermath of national riots and an earlier episode of convulsive debates over crime and policing, New York City’s then-Mayor John Lindsay visited the Rebbe in his study in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There, writes’s Dovid Margolin, the Rebbe advised the mayor that “proper policing and maintaining safe streets would benefit not only potential victims, but also aid the would-be criminals themselves, so often not much older than children.”

Rather than forcing us to see criminals as human beings, whose well-being is ultimately tied to society as a whole, our current system tries to hide them from sight. But even that is no longer possible as the conditions in prisons like New York City’s Rikers Island have gotten so bad that scandals related to the facility are now a recurring feature of local news. Indeed a CBS News feature from just last month detailed the findings of a federal monitor’s report that found the hygienic conditions in Rikers are downright inhumane:

The 150 pictures in the report paint a stomach-turning picture of dirty toilets, wash basins, sinks and other personal hygiene facilities. [...] Inspectors found a cornucopia of live roaches, ants, water bugs, fruit flies, gnats, and mouse droppings.

Aside from filth, the violence, abuse, murders, and suicides at Rikers wreak havoc among the prisoners. While the prisoners have no choice, a significant portion of correctional officers abuse their sick days to avoid showing up to work in such conditions. In fact, the situation has devolved to the point where a potential federal takeover of Rikers is in the cards due to City Hall’s failure to comply with a series of court orders aimed at improving the prisoners’ conditions.

Yet, for all of the U.S. attorney’s showboating about taking over Rikers Island in order to clean up the city’s mess, study after study has revealed that sanitary conditions and the treatment of prisoners are poor across the federal prison system, too. A recent John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analysis revealed that chronic health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, asthma, HIV, and a host of mental illnesses are significantly undertreated in correctional facilities compared to the general population. Much like in Rikers Island, it’s a common occurrence in federal prisons for toilets to either overflow or suffer from water shortages, forcing inmates to spend days with their refuse in their cells. These urgent yet easily solvable health and sanitary crises are compounded by the fact that a third of state and federal prisons are located within three miles of a Federal Superfund site. Superfund sites are polluted locations requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous contaminants, and living in such close proximity can shave off up to 15 months of a person’s life expectancy.

Rather than forcing us to see criminals as human beings, whose well-being is ultimately tied to society as a whole, our current system tries to hide them from sight.

As bad as the hygienic and safety conditions are, they pale in comparison to the brutality and cruelty that convicts inflict on each other and on the guards, or that is directed at them by correctional officers.

In an “Inside Rikers” special report, ABC7 NY found that assaults against officers have increased by more than 23% over the last decade, while fights between inmates have more than quadrupled over the same period. Multiple studies over the previous 40 years have shown that between 20% and 25% of prisoners have reported being victims of physical violence from another inmate while incarcerated.

Guard-on-inmate violence might be even more frequent, though it’s hard to get accurate numbers since it’s common for guards to cover up for each other, falsify reports, or punish prisoners who want to complain with solitary confinement as a deterrent.

This climate of violence leads many first-time offenders to seek gang affiliation inside prison as a form of protection, which in turn increases the likelihood they will engage in violence and reoffend once released. It also highly increases the chance they will spend time in solitary confinement due to the violent behavior of their gang-related activities.

Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture, and its abusers can be tried for war crimes, if inflicted for 15 days or more. Yet, in the American prison system, some inmates spend months, years, or even decades, in solitary confinement. After being wrongfully convicted of killing a prison guard, Albert Woodfox spent some 43 years in solitary confinement—possibly the longest any American has been imprisoned in solitary—before his conviction was overturned on appeal. Nearly half of suicide attempts happen in solitary, and inmates are 12 times more likely to attempt suicide there than in the general prison population.

It might be argued that the very cruelty of the American prison system would at least discourage people from returning to such hellish conditions—but the evidence shows this is wrong.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice released a special report which found a recidivism rate of 78% among violent crime offenders, 84% among drug offenders, and 87% among property crime offenders. Almost 44% of criminals return to prison within a year of release. 68% are rearrested within three years, 79% within six years, and 83% within nine years.

These statistics show we do not have a correctional facility that emphasizes correction. Only 5.1% of the global American population will spend any time in prison throughout their lives, but of those who will, most will end up there more than once.

The conclusion is clear: The U.S. penal system neither rehabilitates prisoners nor scares them out of reoffending. Instead, it routinely subjects inmates to conditions of rampant depravation and violence that, in other contexts, we would consider torture.

Where our political culture falls short, Judaism has the answer.

Unfortunately, most of the solutions to the prison problem proposed by progressive criminal justice reform advocates threaten to make things even worse. So-called “decarceral” policies aimed at reducing the prison population often do so by simply allowing crimes to go unpunished. In New York City for instance, District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who campaigned for office as a criminal justice reformer, announced as his first public policy that his office would “not seek a carceral sentence” for a whole host of crimes. In the period since he took office on Jan 1, 2022, Bragg’s office downgraded 52% of felony cases to misdemeanors, “while also managing to lose half of the felony cases that do reach court,” according to an analysis from the New York Post. That approach did send fewer people into the prison system—the Post recorded a 29% drop in felony convictions leading to prison sentences in the period it examined compared to 2019—but major crimes in the city spiked by 22% last year.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, conservatives tend to simply ignore the issue, or insist that prisoners deserve the appalling conditions as retribution for their crimes.

Thankfully, where our political culture falls short, Judaism has the answer.

A formerly incarcerated man shares his experience of how Aleph supported him on his journey through the prison system and beyond

During a 1976 Hasidic gathering in Brooklyn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe noted that out of all of the punishments and sentences considered in the Torah and books of Jewish law, prison is not mentioned once. Since the Torah is called a “Torah of Kindness,” he explained, any disciplinary action deemed necessary by the Torah is, by extension, an act of kindness.

The primary function of prescribed punishments, from fines all the way to the death penalty, is to act as a deterrent and preventive measure to ensure that criminals will not reoffend. However, the Torah is very clear that while these are necessary, they should not be seen as a permanent mark on someone’s record. Even concerning the worst corporal punishment, the Torah states that after the guilty party has been punished, "... behold, he is ‘your brother.’” That is a radical notion, a call to solidarity with the condemned that resonates with the vision of the progressive “restorative justice” movement.

Regarding the death penalty, the Torah clarifies that it is only inflicted so that the guilty party will pay for their crime in this world and will not be punished in the next. As a result, they will be granted life in the World to Come. It’s also why, according to Jewish Sages, such a judgment was only rendered once every seven years (some say 70) and performed in a way as to preserve dignity. The condemned were supposed to be given a potion that would render them unconscious so that they would not suffer.

From this we can learn a fundamental lesson about how to treat those who have broken the law: Once someone has paid for his crime, the Torah adjures us to look at him not as an ex-convict, as a criminal, as a felon, but rather as a brother—as a fellow citizen. Even a man who committed the worst of crimes should not lose his dignity; if the death penalty is necessary, it is done not out of anger, retribution, or revenge, but because it’s the right thing to do for the sake of both the guilty and society.

These were not mere abstract concerns for the Hasidic leader. In 1981, the Aleph Institute was founded at the Rebbe’s directive, and today serves more than 5,000 Jews incarcerated in the U.S. penal system, helping them to ensure that they can carry out daily Jewish practices, obtain kosher food, properly celebrate holidays, and receive spiritual and emotional support both on the inside and after their release from prison. But the message was not restricted to Jewish prisoners. The Rebbe exhorted people to start organizations to help both Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners. He also emphasized lobbying for early-release programs in exchange for good behavior.

The stigma attached to being an ex-convict is one of the main barriers that former prisoners face when reentering society. It heavily affects their attitude post-release. If we can learn to see their humanity instead of imagining them still in prison uniform, it will go a long way to help former convicts reintegrate into society and become valuable members once again. As the Rebbe pointed out during that same 1976 gathering, it’s not only that the person shouldn’t lose their brotherly image in our eyes, but that it should also not negate the divine nature of a human being. We are obligated to uphold the belief that even the worst criminal was still created in the image of G-d.

According to the Rebbe, Judaism’s vision of crime and punishment is encapsulated in the verse “man was born to toil.” The meaning of the verse is that a man should not spend his day idly but should rather be productive. To accomplish this, however, an individual needs self-determination, and yet prison is the opposite of self-determination. How then can prisoners possibly fulfill their G-d-given purpose in such an environment?

The answer is simple: If a man is in prison, it should not be a punishment but an occasion to reflect on his undesirable actions. He should be given the opportunity to learn, improve himself, and prepare for his release, at which point he can embrace an honest and peaceful new life. Instead of wasting his days in prison, he will look back on those days as having been filled with meaning.

Studies show that, alongside the previously mentioned stigma, the lack of education and employment opportunities are two of the most significant factors in recidivism. Conversely, prisoners participating in post-high school education programs or in learning a trade are 45% less likely to reoffend once out of prison, according to the Department of Justice. It affects not only their lives outside of prison but inside as well; participation in such programs leads to lower levels of inmate violence and fosters an entirely different relationship between prisoners.

The Rebbe finished his 1976 discourse by stating that for a man to rehabilitate, first and foremost, the prisoner must be able to retain a sense of his humanity and likeness to G-d. He is a human being who can, if he so chooses, be a reflection of G-dliness and goodness in this world. However, when a prisoner is denied his humanity and self-image, when he feels that he’s subjugated and unable to raise his head, the prison system will inevitably create an even greater criminal.

By our current political standards, these proposals may seem naive or impractical. Too invested in G-d and human goodness. Too religious. But in fact they are far more practical than our current method of expecting to reduce criminality by treating people as subhuman, and far more reasonable than allowing criminals to prey on innocent people and then calling this “justice.” What we are doing now has failed. It is time to try the Jewish way.

When not teaching in Yeshiva, Yisrael Eliashiv can be found on twitter at @shevereshtus, where he discusses culture, political issues, and the modern world as understood through the Hasidic lens.

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