Rabbis join fight against solitary confinement
Human rights group leads effort to restrict ‘torture’ in NJ jails
Many Jewish religious leaders have joined with their peers in other faith communities to back legislation in New Jersey that would provide the nation’s most “progressive” restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.
The state Senate approved a bill sponsored by State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20) by a vote of 23 to 16 last month before going on summer recess. A vote on the Assembly bill brought by Nancy Pinkin (D-Dist. 18) is expected in the fall.
The bills would cap solitary confinement — considered by many to be a form of torture and counterproductive to prisoners’ rehabilitation — at 15 days, limit its use to prisoners who pose a risk to themselves or others, and prohibit its use for vulnerable populations, including youth; members of the LGBT population; the elderly; pregnant women; and those with developmental disabilities, mental illness, or a serious medical conditions.
“I think there are multiple reasons we need to support and pass this bill in the Assembly and get it signed into law,” said Rabbi Philip Bazeley, assistant religious leader at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. “One is our religious tradition that says to treat everyone with respect. We must remember everyone is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God. As a rabbi, I know the members of my community want to be safe, but solitary confinement, the torture of our fellow New Jerseyans, does not keep us safer.”
Lesniak told NJJN evidence has shown that solitary confinement makes prisoners more violent, placing corrections officers and other inmates at greater risk. As such, he said, he believes it should be used only in extreme cases.
“Otherwise it’s inhumane, unnecessary, and amounts to torture,” said Lesniak. “Solitary confinement should never be used for purely disciplinary reasons and only on a temporary basis.”
Lesniak noted that several other states have made changes to their solitary confinement laws, and along the way reaped savings through better use of space and personnel.
Speaking July 6 at an interfaith rally at the Reformed Church of Highland Park in support of the bills, Bazeley said, “Jewish law warns against excessive punishment…. Even a person who has committed a horrific crime must be regarded as a member of one’s own family and therefore deserving of dignity.
“What are the purposes of prisons?” he asked. “Are their goals to rehabilitate and enable someone to reenter society or to dole out retributive justice and teach their residents that the world is bleak and dark and full of pain? Jewish criminal justice seeks to inspire teshuva — repentance. The person who has completed punishment regains his or her status as a full member of the community.”
Others taking part in the rally included both legislators, a former prisoner who spent time in solitary confinement, and Mark Cranston, warden of the Middlesex County Jail and director of the county department of corrections. The department last year received one of five national grants from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice for its groundbreaking alternative programs to solitary.
The rally was organized by the church’s religious leaders, the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, who serves on the board of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, and associate Pastor Amos Caley, the coalition’s state organizer.
The statewide Jewish community push to support the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act is being led by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and its director, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck. T’ruah will ask rabbis to deliver a d’var Torah on the matter and urge congregants to contact legislators to support the bill.
Rabbi David Levy of Temple Shalom in Succasunna testified before the Senate about his experiences as a chaplain in the 1990s at Marion Prison, a federal penitentiary in Illinois, one of the country’s highest-security prisons.
Levy told NJJN in an interview that every day more than 1,500 NJ inmates live in “restrictive housing” in the state’s prisons and jails, spending 22-24 hours a day alone or with one other person in a cell, with little access to education or other programs.
He said his most frequent request for visitation came from inmates in solitary. Federal rules require that a prisoner has only to self-identify in a religion to be considered of that faith, so Levy could not confirm they were actually Jewish.
“These were people who were starved for human contact and losing their sense of self,” said Levy. “By putting people in solitary confinement we are sucking out their souls, which is contrary to Jewish values…. I really think it’s important to have a strong Jewish voice on this.”
‘Wants to do good’
Marshall Roundtree, who was released from an Essex County prisoner reentry program on June 2, spent 23 of his 42 years “in just about every prison in the state.” The latest offense for which he was incarcerated was aggravated assault with a gun.
Currently a dishwasher at a Jersey City restaurant, Roundtree said he was placed in solitary several times.
“The most egregious reason was because I became known as someone who has some influence on my fellow prisoners, providing them with books and reading material,” said Roundtree, who added he was “harassed” after he became a paralegal and began representing inmates in disciplinary hearings.
Being in solitary was “total despair, total loneliness,” said Roundtree. “The conditions are horrible. I can remember hearing the roaches falling from the ceiling. You just bundle yourself up with the covers over you. The mattresses were never long enough…. You had to sleep in a fetal position. There were cracks in the wall where the rain would run in and wet the bed….
“There was no one to reach out to, and you were totally at the mercy of those who didn’t care about you.”
Conditions were even worse for those with special needs, he said, with many left in mice-infested cells for months.
Roundtree said he was lucky to be among the few to come out without being “damaged or jaded” and “with no hatred in my heart.” Now, he said, he “only wants to do good to pay back those who have helped me.” His goal is to get a job as a paralegal.
Doni Remba, director of the Westfield-based Jewish Alliance for Change, who was at the rally, told NJJN that those supporting the legislation are “a tremendously diverse group of people” working as a coalition to make it clear that support among religious institutions is “deep and clear.”
“This is the most comprehensive bill in the country on the issue of solitary confinement,” said Remba. “Nationally it will set some precedent.”
In an interview, Pinkin told NJJN the bill has received broad support from across the spectrum, including from corrections officers.
“Retooling our prisons to reduce solitary will reduce tensions and violence in the prison,” she said, “but the ultimate goal is to get these people released back into the community rehabilitated and able to live productively.”