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Prison Reform: An American Spiritual Crisis

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"Welcome to the Waldorf Astoria," said the jail guard as he showed me the room I would sleep in, my prison issue bedding (top sheet, bottom sheet, two pillowcases, no pillow) and the vacuum-packed kosher meals that had been prepared for me. This was the beginning of the three days of this High Holy Day season that I would spend on Rikers Island, New York City's jail complex located in the East River. Here, where some 14,000 inmates await their trials, I prayed, ate and slept over during Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat as the rabbi of a community of 60 or so Jewish inmates.

The descent into one of the darker places in our society initially filled me with fear and anxiety. What kinds of religious messages would resonate inside jail? How could I provide spiritual care and inspiration to prisoners?

"Rabbi!" one of the inmates called out to me after services on the first day. "If God is good, and God does everything for a reason, why am I here?"

While I was focused on the spiritual questions of the inmates before me like this one, I could not help but think about the broader systemic issues that are at play in the American prison system. America maintains one of the highest incarceration rates in the world : overshadowing such countries as Russia, Iran and Rwanda. Congress is currently considering legislation to support prison reform. More than 40 Orthodox rabbis have signed on a petition drafted by Uri L'Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice supporting changes in our criminal justice system. Reform is desperately needed.

Tax payers collectively pay $60 billion annually -- the fastest-growing general fund expenditure in the United States right below Medicaid. The cost, both monetarily and socially, of prisons is growing exponentially, with contributing defects at every stage of the criminal justice system: draconian penalties on petty offenders, inadequate assistance of counsel, overcrowded prisons, failed rehabilitative programming, and underfunded re-entry programs.

Our incarceration system is not just failing the people behind bars or even those at risk, but it is failing the American people, our community and our society. Proper prison conditions, rehabilitation, and re-entry support, including funding vocational programs, increasing transitional living, and restoring voting rights, will benefit prisoners and the American public.

Our prison system is broken. We need to fix it.

The Jewish tradition has many insights to offer about the problem of prisons. Two spiritual teachings that are profoundly relevant to this issue:

Anyone can change.

We had many conversations over the holiday about teshuvah, the Jewish concept of making amends with others and returning to a better self and to God. I shared a teaching of one of the great talmudic rabbis, Resh Lakish, who himself was formerly a notorious thief and gladiator. He taught "great is teshuvah for sins done on purpose are converted to good deeds." Theology, moral insights, introspection, Jewish wisdom and even a sense of humor flowed in these conversations. The soul knows no chains, and even in the depths of Rikers Island folks were hoping, praying and working on changing themselves for the better. I realized that if they can do it, any of us can. But is our prison system doing what it can to foster this transformation? Or is just creating a revolving door system that shuttles people back and forth from the streets to jail?

Another lesson: The image of God is in all of us.

Many of the folks I met had made terrible choices that hurt other people deeply. Yet the Torah teaches that all people are created in the image of God and must be treated with dignity, that even sinners and criminals have inalienable rights. The Prophets demand that we act as advocates for the vulnerable -- those locked away and silenced in dark places. Yet it was incredibly difficult to separate the crimes allegedly committed by these inmates from the inmates themselves. Does our society recognize the innate human dignity of all people, including those locked behind bars?

There are points of hope. To create change within the prison system, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia has recently introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 (N.C.J.A.), an exceptional initiative, which Jews should support. This bill will create a bipartisan commission to study the United States criminal justice system and offer concrete recommendations to combat its imbalances and injustices. This bill has already attracted broad support, from over 150 civil rights, criminal justice, community and faith-based organizations, as well as the National Sheriff's Association, National Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Narcotics Officers' Associations' Coalition and International Union of Police Associations. This is an encouraging step.

On the final day of Rosh Hashanah, we concluded the service by blowing the shofar. It was then time for the inmates to begin their holiday meal, one of the few they could enjoy eating outside the chaos of the mess hall. But many of them lingered, asking me to blow the shofar more, to complete the religiously required 100 blasts.

So we gathered together, and I blew with everything I had -- 50, 60, 70, 80 blasts, until we reached 100. I sounded those broken shofar notes for their sake, for the sake of their victims, for all of us crying out for a better reality. As we enter this tumultuous 5772, I pray each of us finds the strength to break free from whatever chains hold us back from our potential to return to God, and at the same time do everything we ensure that our society is doing everything it can to help everyone, no matter what corner office or dark dungeon they occupy, do the same.

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