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Jewish students pleaded with Christie to end ‘torture’ in prisons
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Jewish students pleaded with Christie to end ‘torture’ in prisons

On Dec. 5, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, a historic bill limiting solitary confinement in New Jersey prisons and county jails that was passed recently by the State Legislature. 

After hearing the testimony of Marshall Rountree — an African-American man who was placed into isolation in several NJ prisons for seven of the 23 years he served until his release in June — and that of many others like him, hundreds of middle-school students from several synagogue religious schools wrote to Christie, shortly before the veto, urging him to sign the bill. They were inspired by Judaism’s abhorrence of punishment that destroys the human soul, desecrates the image of God in every person, and fails to promote teshuva and rehabilitation. Even though the governor vetoed the bill, it is my hope that publicizing the students’ entreaties will motivate others to take up the cause and lobby on behalf of those who have been mistreated in NJ jails. Perhaps, with sufficient outcry, Christie will reconsider the issue, or else his successor may decide that it is his or her moral responsibility to do so. 

The following is an edited compilation of their letters:    

Dear Gov. Christie: 

I AM AN extremely privileged girl. I eat well, go to a fancy school, live in a house, and I’m white. Until recently, I wasn’t aware that I live in a bubble. The world is a much harsher place than I thought and I want to be a part of making it better. If you have children, you must understand. Solitary confinement is cruel and dehumanizing. Everyone should have the basic human right to a fair trial and fair treatment. Signing this bill could make life better for so many people. Some could possibly include your children.

•••

I KNOW THAT you probably get a ton of these of letters, but I really encourage you to read them. Part of being Jewish means standing up for what is right and for the people around us. Of course there are people who do belong somewhere like solitary confinement, but others are not being helped by this system. There are 1,500 people right now suffering in isolation in NJ prisons. Once let out, they will return to our society and are likely to be worse off than before. This system is meant to heal people, but many who enter are guaranteed to go back. How is this helpful? Please consider this threat to our future and put a stop to the ill-thought-out actions of our state. 

•••

TODAY SOMEONE came to our Hebrew school and talked about solitary confinement from first-hand experience. It shocked me how prisoners are treated. I think you should sign this bill because no one deserves to be treated this way. This bill would make sure that only the people who needed to be there would be in solitary. I read a newspaper article about torture, but I was surprised to know it happened so close to home. Please pass this bill and make a difference, because you were given the power to change us and the state. 

•••

IT IS IMPERATIVE that you sign this bill! It would be a great part of your record and would put you, and New Jersey, on the right side of history. This is not a partisan issue, but a human one. Those who have been in solitary have a higher recidivism rate, making us all less safe, and going back to prison costs more for the state.

•••

THERE IS NO reason to treat people like dogs! The bill limiting solitary confinement is necessary in our community to eliminate racism and prejudice. The majority of people in isolation are African-Americans or people who are mentally unwell. They should not be forced into inhumane living quarters. 

•••

I THINK SOLITARY is a terrible way to treat citizens of New Jersey and the United States Prison is supposed to get people to learn from their mistakes and move on. But isolation is a way to drive prisoners insane, and may emotionally scar them and stop them from going and fixing their lives when they are released. 

•••

I HAVE JUST met somebody at our religious school who has been in solitary in our prisons. I cannot imagine being locked in a cell the size of a bathroom. Although the purpose of this punishment is to rehabilitate, it does the opposite. 

•••

I KNOW THAT you have not been to prison (yet), but I am asking you to look from a prisoner’s perspective. No one who survives solitary confinement for weeks, months, or years will ever be the same again. This bill will limit the time most people spend there to 15 days, and make sure that prisoners are checked by medical experts beforehand and every day after that. It will stop putting vulnerable people in isolation, such as teenagers, the elderly, pregnant women, and people who are mentally ill. 

•••

ISOLATION IS TORTURE. People live in conditions that are unimaginable. I’m sure a note from an eighth grader will not change your view, but I plead with you to think about the facts and studies proving that solitary confinement has devastating effects on the mental and physical state of people. Think about how awfully these people are treated. Please just look into your heart and find at least some civility and empathy toward all of these prisoners, some there for almost nothing. 

•••

I HAD A family member who was put in jail for speeding. Yes, he broke the law, but because he has a hearing problem, he talks loudly, and was put in solitary confinement in a prison in New Jersey. Governor Christie, he committed suicide. He was my closest cousin and I loved him. Please, I beg you to save lives and truly help the people you were elected to represent. 

•••

GOV. CHRISTIE, please do the right thing. We know you can. 

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