Rabbi Jesse Olitzky is passionate about limiting the practice of putting inmates in New Jersey in solitary confinement — “the cruelest form of punishment, causing serious emotional stress and disorders” — said the leader of Congregation Beth El in South Orange. “Solitary confinement denies one the divine right to connection, but even more importantly, it is a severe form of torture, and we have a moral obligation to stand up to such acts of torture.”
Olitzky is one of 18 NJ rabbis who have taken action against inmate isolation, in coordination with T’ruah: The Call for Human Rights, the rabbinic social justice organization. Both New Jersey houses of legislature passed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act on June 20, and the bill is now awaiting Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature. If signed into law — Murphy has said he does not support solitary confinement — it will be the first comprehensive legislation limiting the use of solitary confinement enacted by a state legislature, according to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Similar legislation was previously passed by the Legislature but vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2016.
Olitzky had reached out to legislators to move the bill forward and is now urging Murphy to sign it. Other rabbis have testified in Trenton, sermonized on the issue, and/or signed an open letter to Murphy circulated by New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJ CAIC).
A statement on the T’ruah website reads, in part:
“Prisoners in solitary typically spend 23 hours a day locked in small, often windowless, cells…. “Many prisoners in solitary confinement are kept there for years, sometimes even for decades…. For mentally ill prisoners, prolonged solitary confinement can be a living horror; the restricted activities and interactions can exacerbate their illness and immeasurably increase their pain and suffering….
“We have a moral obligation to uphold the dignity and mental health of those currently incarcerated, whatever their crime. By decreasing the overuse of solitary confinement, the U.S. can save money, reduce prison violence, and most importantly, uphold the human rights that all human beings are guaranteed by the Constitution, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Jewish law.”
The bill focuses on curtailing long-term confinement. It limits isolation to 20 consecutive days, or 30 in a 60-day period and requires comprehensive medical and mental health examinations and prohibits isolation for inmates who are vulnerable based on age (21 and under or 65 and over), disability (mental or developmental), LGBTQ status, or visual or aural impairment. Inmates cannot be placed in isolation with a serious medical condition that can’t effectively be treated there or who are in the aftermath of suffering a miscarriage or terminating a pregnancy, or who have recently given birth.
T’ruah has been working on this issue since 2011 and is currently involved in advocacy efforts in New Jersey, New York, California, and elsewhere around the country.
“We really have an opportunity in New Jersey to be at the vanguard of change,” said T’ruah deputy director Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck. “As a resident of the Garden State, I’m particularly proud of us and…the fact that we could be the state that sets a new human rights standard.”
Some of the rabbis have been working on this issue since the earlier legislation wound its way to the veto. Those supporting the legislation argue that it is essentially a Jewish issue, but may cite different Jewish sources and values undergirding their advocacy.
“Not only does the Torah teach that ‘it is not good for a person to be alone,’ but even before that, it teaches that humans are created in the image of God,” wrote Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, in an e-mail from Israel, where he is leading a congregational trip. “I believe that humans are holy and that even when they have committed crimes, their humanity and — as our tradition teaches — holiness, must be honored. When we treat another human inhumanely, we are reducing the potential to experience and know God in the world.”
Rabbi David Vaisberg, on his first day as senior rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, told NJJN that the imperative to take this on as a Jewish issue also comes out of the Jews’ experiences in history. He doesn’t see the issue as plaguing the Jewish community today, since, he said, it mostly affects African-Americans and other minorities. But he does see it as one Jews are obligated to respond to. “Someone else is crying out,” said Vaisberg. “If we don’t do something, we are held accountable. We know what it is to be subjugated, to be the stranger. Because of the Shoah, we know how far things can go when others are not looking.
“The lessons of the Shoah teach that we have an obligation to look out for others.”
Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains places the issue in the broader context of a penal system that does not work fairly for all — something he addresses with regularity in Trenton, in his sermons and in conversation. He sticks to traditional sources; regarding solitary confinement, he focuses on the goal of incarceration: return to society rather than punishment.
“Rabbi Meir was reminded by his wife, Bruriah [both second-century Talmudic sages] that we should pray not for the death of sinners, but rather for the death of their sin,” said Abraham. “A belief in rehabilitation means that imprisonment should not be debilitating — should not make prisoners worse — but should rather help them to return as contributing members of society. Solitary confinement demoralizes prisoners, removes them from society, and weakens their ability to return.”
Kahn-Troster said many rabbis are particularly positioned to understanding this issue because they regularly visit inmates (congregants or others) and so have an eyewitness experience of prison conditions. When T’ruah first took on the issue, she said, its board was comprised entirely of rabbis and cantors. “We asked, ‘How many of you have been to visit someone in a prison?’ and every single hand went up.”
After both houses passed the bill, T’ruah’s statement underscored the dangers of extended solitary confinement in a statement: “The rabbis of the Talmud described the practice of solitary confinement as one of slow death. The U.S. experience demonstrates the truth of this ancient wisdom. We congratulate the New Jersey Legislature for taking a major step to end this form of torture, and we call on Gov. Murphy to sign the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act into law immediately.”
According to a 2014 report submitted to the United Nations by T’ruah, the United States currently detains approximately 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in every possible site of detention: prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers; federal, state, and local sites; and public and privately run institutions.
Solitary confinement of more than 15 days constitutes torture under international law, and, according to T’ruah, it is disproportionately employed against vulnerable populations, like those with mental illness, and is associated with increased rates of suicide and attempted suicide.
In working to pass this legislation in New Jersey, T’ruah partnered with the NJ CAIC, the National Religious Campaign against Torture, and the ACLU of New Jersey; other faith communities; as well as with Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the labor union that represents nurses in New Jersey prisons.
Other supporters of the legislation through T’ruah include Rabbi Philip Bazeley and Rabbi Maya Glasser of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham, Rabbi Dr. Ruth Gais of Chavurat Lamdeinu in Summit, Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, Rabbi Paul Jacobson of Avodat Shalom in River Edge, Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, Rabbi David Levy of AJC New Jersey in Randolph, Rabbi Lee Paskind of the Rabbinical Assembly in Teaneck, Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg of the Glen Rock Jewish Center, Rabbi Steve Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, and Rabbi Ariann Weitzman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair.
Other rabbis, including those not affiliated with T’ruah, support the legislation.
Rabbi Sara Metz of Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy said that while she believes Jewish tradition and law support punishment for criminals, “undue harm should never be inflicted on a person who is incarcerated. Solitary confinement has become too prevalent, and in many situations is undue harm.”
“Of course this is a Jewish issue,” said Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation Bnai Tikvah in North Brunswick, “because it has to do with human beings, and human beings are created in the image of God. What could be a more Jewish issue than the degradation of the image of God?”