T’ruah wishes a mazal tov to the New York Civil Liberties Union and New York State on this week’s announcement of a landmark settlement that will create a comprehensive overhaul of solitary confinement in one of the nation’s largest prison systems, and that will provide a mechanism for ending the state’s overreliance on prolonged isolation as a disciplinary tool.
Prolonged solitary confinement constitutes torture, both according to human rights experts and according to Torah. “It is not good for a person to be alone,” (Genesis 2:18) In a Talmudic story about a a Rip Van Winkle-like character who wakes up to learn that he has outlived everyone he knew declares, “Either companionship or death.” (Ta’anit 23a) Indeed, the ancient rabbis understood that solitary confinement was a means of exacting the death penalty. (Sanhedrin 81b)
The landmark agreement will improve the lives of more than one quarter of the current solitary population, who will either be placed in alternative units or provided with less isolating, more rehabilitative conditions. The settlement also eliminates solitary confinement as punishment for all minor violations and limits the duration of most solitary sentences. In the past, people have been placed in solitary for infractions ranging from refusing to return a cafeteria tray to attempting suicide. An interim agreement reached two years ago provided immediate protection to incarcerated juveniles, pregnant women, and developmentally disabled prisoners.
As rabbis, many of us have visited congregants in prison, or served as prison chaplains. These pastoral experiences have taught us the degradation prisoners feel, the loneliness of being in prison, and the desperation of those unable to maintain normal human relationships while living in isolation. T’ruah has brought rabbis to visit solitary confinement units on interfaith fact-finding missions. At Sing Sing Prison, we listened in pain as the inmates called out: Where are you from? How can we write you? Will you tell people what you have seen here? At Riker’s Island, those of us who spent a few moments in a solitary cell felt the panic and the constriction that inmates in isolation experience for weeks and years on end. We understood better than ever before the pain of Psalm 118, “From the narrow place, I called to God.”
This week’s settlement is the first step in passing comprehensive state legislation to end solitary confinement. Just as the settlement from a lawsuit provided both the legal framework and legislative momentum to pass New York State’s 2008 SHU Exclusion Act, which prohibited the most seriously mentally ill prisoners from spending time in solitary confinement, we hope that the Governor and the State legislature will work quickly to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. As a member of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), T’ruah reaffirms our commitment to bringing about this legislative solution for all of New York’s incarcerated persons. If passed, HALT would be the model for the entire nation for ending solitary confinement, both in terms of scope and sheer number of prisoners affected. We will continue to organize rabbis and Jewish communities across New York to ensure that no person held in prison or jail is degraded or faces the torture of solitary confinement.
The ancient rabbis explained that “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) means, “No one should say: “Because I have been dishonored, let my fellow person be dishonored.” Rabbi Tanhuma taught, “If you do thus, know that the person you have dishonored was created in the image of God.” No matter why people have ended up in prison, we have a basic human and Jewish obligation to maintain their dignity as creations in the image of God. Reducing the use of solitary confinement represents a major step toward this goal.