Orange Is the New Black

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August 29, 2013

Rashid Johnson, drawing, California Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition

We are in the Hebrew month of Elul, a time of review, return, and renewal leading to the High Holy Days. During Elul, we are asked to take stock of where and how we have fallen short, leading us to teshuvah, generally translated as “repentance” but really meaning “return.” Our “sins” serve as catalysts to return to our better selves, to God, and to Torah. This year, let us include among our shortcomings forgetting the humanity of those whom we have imprisoned and denying them the opportunity to do teshuvah.

Perhaps you have heard the hype about “Orange Is the New Black,” an excellent Netflix series based on a memoir by the same name. Piper Kerman, a blond, self-described WASP, graduate of Smith College, born into a Boston family of doctors, lawyers and teachers is the last person you might expect to have spent 15 months in prison for carrying drug money. As a naive novice to this crushing world, Kerman discovers the hard knocks her fellow inmates have endured, their dismal current circumstances, and the bleak future awaiting most of them. Kerman did not experience the worst of prison life — Danbury Prison is a minimum-security prison, she was only there for a short sentence, and she had a home, family, and job to come back to. Such is not the case for most inmates. Still, the book and the series give you a sense of the absolute power the corrections officers wield over inmates, and the arbitrariness of how rules are enforced. The physical environment is grim and the psychological, grimmer, apt to break down a person’s sense of self.

Of course, you might say: These are criminals, and they don’t deserve better treatment. But consider the fact that these women are in prison for nonviolent crimes, and that they grew up, for the most part, in terribly disadvantaged circumstances, most suffering from poverty and abuse, many from illiteracy and some from mental illness. Their time in prison does little to rehabilitate them or to prepare them for reentry into the real world.

One of the worst forms of punishment in prison is being sent to the Security Housing Unit. The SHU is meant to isolate high-security-risk inmates. Often, these are particularly violent criminals. But this is not always the case. For example, in her book, Piper Kerman reports that female inmates are reluctant to report sexual abuse by corrections officers because they are often sent to the SHU “for their own protection.”

According to an Urban Institute study, the SHU “typically involves up to 23-hour-per-day, single-cell confinement for an indefinite period of time. Inmates…have minimal contact with staff and other inmates.” There are generally minimal opportunities for education, recreation or other programs in the SHU. Most often, solitary confinement last for years, and is at the discretion of the correction officers and the prison administration, with no recourse to legal representation, outside review, or a grievance system.

Monday was Day 50 of a hunger strike, involving, at its height, some 30,000 California inmates protesting solitary confinement. To wit, more than 3,000 California prisoners spend 23 hours a day in an 8-by-10-foot cell, with almost no human contact. And at least 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement each day in American prisons. This violates basic ethical standards as well as Jewish tradition. As Rabbi Melanie Aron points out:

…we find tremendous concern for the criminal both in the text itself and in the Rabbinic commentaries and applications. We note first of all the limitations on the punishment of the guilty offender (Babylonian Talmud, Makot 22b). The punishment must be proportional to the crime and must be done in the presence of the judge. Later in Rabbinic practice, this becomes three judges…. The physical condition of the guilty party was taken into consideration along with his ability to withstand punishment. Finally and perhaps most significantly, after being called the “wicked” through the first two verses, in the third verse, the perpetrator is called “your brother,” reaffirming his commonality with you, the member of the community hearing these laws.

The goal was for the criminal to return as a viable member of the community, having done teshuvah and having paid his/her debt to society.

Isolation does nothing to promote rehabilitation. Rather, people emerge more violent, often mentally impaired, and unable to function in society. The Torah tells us that we are to free the captive — matir asurim. It is part of our daily liturgy in the second blessing of the Tefilah. So, perhaps even more important than rehabilitation, we should, as Rabbi Mark Goldfarb urges us, “fulfill the obligation of matir asurim, ‘freeing the captives,’ by keeping people from becoming captives in the first place by addressing issues of poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of quality education, access to health care, and other ills our society faces.”

While many in solitary confinement have committed serious or even heinous acts, as a society we cannot treat them as less than human. Let us remember that even the so-called criminal is a child of God, created b’tzelem Elohim — in God’s image.

Four Things You Can Do to Help

1) Use the “Misheberach for Hunger Strikers” during the High Holidays.

2) Download, sign, and send this petition to Gov. Brown. Clergy and religious leaders should sign this open letter to Gov. Brown.

3) Visit Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition regularly for updates, including actions you can take.

4) Spread awareness during Elul — including via Facebook and Twitter. #hungerstrike

Rabbi Suzanne Singer has served at Temple Beth El of Riverside, CA, as rabbi and educator since February 2008. Previously, she served for two and a half years as a rabbi at Temple Sinai of Oakland, CA. She has been actively engaged in social justice work, currently serving as a member of the Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC) Clergy Caucus, the Advisory Board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in the Inland Empire, and previously as a Commissioner for the City of Riverside’s Human Relations Commission. Additionally, Rabbi Singer launched two social justice conferences, the first in the Bay Area in November, 2005, the second in Los Angeles in November, 2007.

As a religious leader, Rabbi Singer proudly joins T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in urging for a swift, just and humane end to long-term, indefinite solitary confinement in California.

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