Rabbi Jay Kornsgold is passionate about limiting solitary confinement for inmates in New Jersey. “It’s kavod habriyot,” or respect for life, said the leader of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor. “People are in prisons for a variety of reasons but we need to be cognizant that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and not in an inhumane way.”
Kornsgold is one of 18 NJ rabbis who signed onto a statement prepared by the rabbinic social justice organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, in support of legislation to dramatically restrict the practice of placing inmates in isolation. Both New Jersey houses 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.
“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,” the T’ruah statement read. “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.”
Beyond the 18 rabbis who signed the statement, NJJN spoke to several other local rabbis who also support the bill.
“This is a Jewish issue, because it has to do with human beings, and human beings are created in the image of God,” said Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of Congregation Bnai Tikvah in North Brunswick. “What could be a more Jewish issue than the degradation of the image of God? And that’s what solitary confinement is: degradation.”
The bill focuses on curtailing long-term confinement, limiting isolation to 15 consecutive days, or 20 in a 60-day period. It requires comprehensive medical and mental health examinations, prohibits isolation for inmates who are vulnerable based on age, disability, medical conditions and other factors, and provides an opportunity for inmates to contest confinement.
Former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed similar legislation in 2016. At that time, Kornsgold had spent significant time meeting with representatives in Trenton in an effort to move it forward. He told NJJN he had not been as involved this time.
T’ruah partnered with the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement; other faith communities and organizations; the ACLU of New Jersey; and Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE), the labor union that represents nurses in New Jersey prisons, in working to pass this legislation.