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Human Rights Shabbat: Campaign to End Mass Incarceration

But we must recall the innate human dignity of every person, every prisoner, and recognize their need for healing, too.

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights supports communities in marking Human Rights Shabbat (December 4-5 and 11-12). This year, they call attention to how human rights are a source of light in our world and invite participants to learn more about one of their four campaigns: Increasing Transparency in Israel Funding, Ending the Occupation, Justice for Farmworkers, and Ending Mass Incarceration. In this blog post, Rabbi Seth Wax reflects on ending mass incarceration.

Last year, I visited Rikers Island with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. and had my first exposure to the vast New York prison system. I have been deeply troubled, since then, by the ways in which our justice system often suppresses and denies human dignity. Those who are accused and/or convicted of committing crimes are not offered opportunities for meaningful rehabilitation and reconciliation. Injured parties are left to deal with the effects of violent crime on their own. In the United States we lock up over 2.2 million people in state and federal facilities, one of the highest levels of mass incarceration in the world.

Through Tr’uah, I have had the opportunity to learn more about mass incarceration in the United States. I have attended programs, read reports, and found opportunities to speak with those who have spent time in prison. Last week I attended an event hosted by the Brooklyn Borough President entitled, “From Shame to Dignity: Restorative Justice as a Tool to Address & End Mass Incarceration.” This gathering brought religious leaders together to discuss how to support communities affected by violence and its aftermath, and in particular, to share best practices for supporting men and women returning from incarceration. Pastors, ministers, and leaders of churches and ministries that focus on outreach to those who have had contact with the criminal justice system spoke passionately about the deep needs in their communities to foster healing and reconciliation between harmed and responsible parties.

It was an incredibly moving gathering, but I felt like an outsider. Most of the people in the room were involved in prison ministries. Though I had led meditation with incarcerated youth while in graduate school, my direct involvement with prisoners and prison advocacy was limited.

Yet as I sat in this gathering, I was deeply affected by what I heard. I learned about the complex challenges of mass incarceration. Together we explored the interplay between decades of tough-on-crime laws, enhanced drug enforcement, insufficient mental healthcare, extended solitary confinement, and severely diminished opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. We discussed the impact of all of these factors on those who are currently incarcerated, those who have been incarcerated, their families and the communities from which they hale and to which they return.    

Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear of Healing Communities, a Christian ministry that provides community, counseling and reconciliation for those coming out of the prison system, drew a powerful comparison between prisons and hospitals. He noted that when a person gets sick, churches and synagogues go to great lengths to support the sick person: the rabbi or pastor makes hospital visits, congregants show support, the person’s name gets listed in the bulletin and prayed for in services. But when someone goes to prison, the only person they might see is a volunteer…from someone else’s church. Many of us are reluctant to reach out to those in prison. We often feel that it’s someone else’s problem and believe that those who commit crimes are not worthy of our attention and efforts. But we must recall the innate human dignity of every person, every prisoner, and recognize their need for healing, too.

Rev. Trulear’s words reminded me that while we certainly need to approach mass incarceration through a “social justice” lens—working to recognize the impact of our broken system that perpetuates disturbingly high populations in our jails and prisons—we  must also remember to apply a “human rights” lens, reminding ourselves that those behind bars are real people, who are in need of support, in need of healing and whose successful or failed reintegration into society can have a profound ripple effect upon us all.

Rabbi Seth Wax is rabbi at Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights, NY.

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