Alternatives to Incarceration: A Jewish Approach


 Many  prisoners keep knives in body cavities, an ex-convict explained to me last week, to ensure they can protect themselves from brutal prison violence and rape. This horrific description haunts me.

Maximum-security prisons in the United States, in particular, are some of the most miserable places on earth. Impenetrable cement cells, feeding through a hole, and the bare minimum of exercise are the norm for those residing in their 6×8 cells in America. These 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 is often perpetuating further criminal activity. According to the US Department of Justice, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate and largest prison population of any country in the world. Sustainable alternatives to this growing crisis must be supported.

The inhumanity of incarceration has no place in the Jewish tradition – aside from temporary pre-trial 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 that his dignity not be lessened in the process of repairing the wrong committed as he gives back as a productive member of society. Another model, the “City of Refuge” (Ir Hamiklat), provides for the unintentional murderer a protective community operating in almost all ways 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 the greatest causal factor of prison rape.

Slavery in Egypt was like an overcrowded jail that destroyed the minds of its inhabitants. The Netziv taught that the conditions became so bad that it was clear that G-d 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 of incarceration.

Rav Soloveitchik taught “The halakhah 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 this country.

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 narrow straits!

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. To read more Street Torah, click here.