"We are Jonah"

On September 30 which was also the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Rabbi Feinberg gave a sermon at the Hill Havurah, a Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. This is the text of the sermon. 

Jonah’s Story

The story of the Jonah the prophet is an essential text for the Jewish observance of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.  The story is read during the afternoon service.  The story is actually one of the 15 prophetic books in the Prophetic section of the Hebrew Bible.  Here is a summary of the story. 

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh; instead he hops a ship to Tarshish, which is in the opposite direction.

Jonah falls asleep in the bottom of the boat while a storm brews.  The storm intensifies and the sailors perceive that someone has offended the gods.  They cast lots and Jonah comes up short.  The sailors want to know who Jonah is. 

He tells them he is a Hebrew and that he fears the God of Heavens who made the sea and the dry land. 

The sailors are very afraid and ask Jonah what they should do since he seems to be responsible for the storm.  Jonah says to them to throw him overboard.  The sailors are pious and don’t want to offer up Jonah to his God.  They call out to God begging him not to destroy them.  They don’t want to spill innocent blood. But Jonah instructs them to throw him overboard in order to save themselves as well as the passengers and animals on the ship.  

After the sailors throw Jonah overboard, the storm passes and the sea is calm.  The sailors again are filled with fear and awe and offer up a sacrifice to God and make pledges of future offerings to the God of Israel.

God invites a large fish to swallow Jonah.  Jonah prays to God and after three days and nights the fish spits Jonah out. 

God then instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh and to deliver a message: “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Lo and behold, the people of Nineveh declare a fast and dress in sackcloth.  The King also rises from his throne, dons sackcloth, and sits in ashes.  Everyone fasts: young and old as well as large animals.  Even the animals fast! 

The people repent for their evil ways and the violence in their hands.  The implication is that they have shed innocent blood.

God’s anger dissipates and God decides not to do to them what He had promised.  That is, for the time being God forgives them.

Jonah is furious at God.  Jonah says to God I always knew that you were a gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, full of loving kindness, and renouncing punishment.  Jonah believes that we should not forgive sinners and evildoers until they are punished.  The people of Nineveh did terrible things, they have blood on their hands! How can God let them off the hook without punishment?!

What does Jonah do?  He walks to the east of the city.  God causes a squash plant to grow over him providing shade.  God then causes the squash plant to shrivel and up and die. He brings the east wind and raises the temperature to 100 plus degrees.  He asks Jonah, “Is anger good for you?”  Jonah says “anger is good for me until death.”  God says “you did not nothing to cause the squash to grow.  It came and went.  Should I not have compassion for a city with 12,000 residents and much cattle?”

The story raises many questions but two are most salient for me today: Why is Jonah so angry and why did he go sit in the sun on the east side of the city? 

Jonah is angry at God for forgiving the people without punishing them and without being sure that their Teshuvah (repentance) is sincere.  So what does Jonah do?  Jonah decides to travel to the eastern side of Nineveh.  There Jonah sits and waits.  What is he waiting for?  He believes the Teshuvah (repentance) is insincere and is waiting to see the city recidivate.  He wants to tell God, “I told you so!”  He believes that all the rituals of repentance—sackcloth, ashes, fasting—were a sham.  Jonah doesn’t trust that the people will continue to act justly.

The Story of Michelle Jones & Reginald Dwayne Betts

Let me tell you two modern stories that I believe are connected to the story of Jonah.

Michelle Jones served 20 years in prison for a heinous crime: murdering her 4-year-old son. During her two decades behind bars, Ms. Jones compiled a record an extraordinary record of accomplishment. She published a scholarly article on the first prisons for women in the United States. She wrote a play that will open in December in an Indianapolis theater. She led a team of incarcerated women whose efforts won the Indiana Historical Society’s prize for best research project for 2016. Not the best research project by prisoners, but the best project. Period.

But Ms. Jones’s stunning record wasn’t good enough for top administrators at Harvard University. In a rare move, they overturned the history department’s admission recommendation and rejected Ms. Jones.  However, NYU did accept her and she recently started a doctoral program there.

Ms. Jones’s remarkable story put me in mind of a similar one — that of Reginald Dwayne Betts, the Yale Law graduate whose initial application to the Connecticut bar was recently rejected. Mr. Betts, who was convicted of carjacking in 1996 when he was 16, went on to astonishing success after his release in 2005, including publishing two books, earning BA and MFA degrees, and being accepted by Yale Law School. Mr. Betts passed the Connecticut Bar Exam and he is now employed as a Public Defender in Connecticut. 

There is one catch.  The Connecticut Bar refused to admit him even though he passed the exam.  According to the Bar, all attorneys have to be of good moral character.  Because he is a former felon, there isn’t a presumption of fitness to practice law. He has to prove it with “clear and convincing evidence.” As he continues to pursue admission to the bar, it’s clear that what matters most is the crime he committed as a teenager.  Very recently due to public pressure, the Connecticut Bar admitted Mr. Betts. 

What is the connection between the ancient story of Jonah and the modern stories of Michelle Jones and Reginald Dwayne Betts?

Harvard and the Connecticut bar are Jonah. And more importantly, too many of us are today’s Jonah.  Even with punishment we don’t believe people can change and renew their lives.  Better said, we don’t trust that the people who have committed violent crimes have really changed. Remember Jonah was angry at God because God forgave without punishing.  But our society punishes like no other on earth. And still we have a hard time being ready to forgive men and women who have done bad things, often violent acts, who have served long prison sentences, but who have also done Teshuvah and are ready to renew their lives.

I have experienced these things myself. I have made friends with returning citizens.  Some of them committed violent crimes.  One man I know who is now a leader in the DC Reentry Community was convicted of murder over 30 years ago.  He served a 25 year sentence. He reports to me that there are people with whom he associates who are afraid to invite him into their homes. We are Jonah!  We want people to be punished!  Not only that we have a very difficult time forgiving and accepting people who have done bad things but who have done Teshuvah. 

Ms. Jones and Mr. Betts are very accomplished people.  They are clearly very smart and capable.  What does it say about us that people who are not only brilliant but have also changed their lives have to overcome such obstacles?  Do their stories just serve to undermine the efforts of tens of thousands of incarcerated people to change their lives?  “If two such brilliant people have such trouble convincing liberals that they have changed, what chance do they have? Especially, if they have little education and are not skilled? How can they persuade others that they have truly changed?”

We often lament the fact that over 2 million Americans are in prison; that 30% of all the women in prison in the world are in American prisons.  Yet we—you and I—are the reason for this.  We tolerate brutal prisons, with extraordinary rates of men and women committed to solitary confinement, who are not given proper medical or psychological care, who are isolated from their family and community and with limited educational opportunities. 

Then when these men and women are released from prison, we make it next to impossible for them to find work or housing.  Then we shake our heads and are surprised that so many recidivate.

What Can We Do?

20 years ago, the District was in bad financial and political shape.  At that time the District and the Congress decided to take away from the District most of their criminal justice responsibilities and obligations.  Federal prosecutors prosecute all the felonies committed in the District.  The Public Defender Service is funded by Congress.  The District closed its prison in Virginia.  Any DC resident convicted of a felony serves his or her sentence in a federal prison.

Today, approximately 4600 DC residents are incarcerated in 122 prisons around the country.  DC residents are in prison in California, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, to name a few states. 

This means that DC residents are doubly isolated.  They are isolated from their community and family.  The majority are poor and their families cannot afford many trips out west or south to visit them.  They are also isolated in these prisons.  They are from a city that is often demonized in many parts of our country. 

Much research indicates that the rate of recidivism is a function of whether a prisoner is in touch with his family and community.  The more isolated she is, the more likely she will return to prison after her release. 

To address this issue in one way, IAHR has launched a pen pal project.  The aim of the project is to connect those of living in the District or in the suburbs with a DC resident in prison.  We are asking each pen pal to write at least once a month for one year. Then you can decide if you want to continue or not.  Many of the prisoners have access to email.  So you don’t necessarily have to write a snail mail letter.  In addition, we are planning an orientation for pen pals. We have guidelines that we want everyone to abide by.  In addition to the orientation, we plan to hold periodic meetings for the pen pals so they can share experiences and talk about any issues that may come up. 

IAHR has advertised the program in 10 different federal facilities. We have received a very strong response.  We need your help in order to make this program a success. We have flyers promoting the program.  If you want to get involved, you can contact me.  My contact info is on the flyer.  If you are interested in helping organize part of the program, please talk to me during the break. 

On one level, this is a program to reach out to lonely isolated DC residents who are scattered around the country.  On another level, I hope that those who become pen pals will begin to view the person they are writing to not only as a number, not only as a convicted felon, but as a person with a soul.  I hope and pray that people like you and me will learn about the conditions in our prisons.  You will understand that many of those residing in our prisons want to do Teshuvah and want to renew their lives.  By reaching out to these men and women, we can begin to change the culture that usually wants to write these people off. 

Join with me in reaching out to the incarcerated.  Join with me in saving souls!  

Virginia Coalition Opens Talks with Gov. McAuliffe's Office

RICHMOND, VA - June 21, 2017 – Solitary confinement is torture. In American prisons, more than 50,000 people suffer in long-term solitary confinement, many with no clear expectation of release into general population.

Members of the Virginia Advocacy Group (VAG), the Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) and advocacy partners met today with Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration to present a petition of nearly 20,000 signatures gathered in the case of Kevin Snodgrass, a Virginia prison inmate housed in isolation for almost four years. Research has found the cruelty of isolation has long-term psychological and psychosocial effects on inmates, including despondency, depression, and even suicidal tendencies.

The group advocated at the meeting for prisoners with mental illness and other disabilities, related the IAHR’s position condemning solitary confinement in Virginia, and urged the administration to establish guidelines for its use modeled after the U.S. Department of Justice’s Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing. The group also addressed the lack of structure and clarity of the “Step Down Program”.

Specifically, VAG asked the governor, through his representatives, to:

  • Limit the use of solitary confinement to when it is absolutely necessary and other alternatives are unavailable;
  • Provide prisoners in solitary confinement with a written plan for returning to less restrictive conditions as soon as possible; and
  • Stop placing inmates with serious mental illness or mental, physical or intellectual disabilities in solitary confinement.

Collectively, the Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR), National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), Virginia Council of Churches (VCC), Social Action Linking Together (SALT), the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU-VA) and Virginia CURE have been advocating for reform as part of their long-standing mission to eradicate solitary confinement.

Virginia Advocacy Group meeting attendees included:

  • Charles Feinberg, executive director IAHR;
  • Gay Gardner, secretary, IAHR;
  • Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, mother of Kevin D. Snodgrass #1203403, board member, IAHR;
  • Rev. Dr. Jonathan Barton, general minister, VCC;
  • Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications, ACLU-VA; and
  • Carla Peterson, director, Virginia CURE.

Representatives of the governor’s administration present at the meeting included Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, Deputy Secretary Victoria Cochran, Policy Director Jennie O’Holleran, and Counsel to the Governor Carlos Hopkins.

“The bottom line for us is that prisons and jails have to become transparent so that their leaders can be held accountable,” said IAHR Executive Director Rabbi Charles Feinberg.

“Solitary confinement is a cruel, ineffective and costly practice that causes great harm to the individuals who are subjected to it while failing to make incarcerated people, prisons or the communities to which inmates eventually are released any safer,” said ACLU-VA Director of Strategic Communications Bill Farrar.

“In the case of my son, Kevin Snodgrass, the efforts of VAG and advocacy partners led to global support of his petition, but for most others there is no clarity on what guidelines are set forth that would ensure proper treatment of inmates,” said Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass. “In many cases prisoners have been in solitary confinement for decades.”

About the Interfaith Action for Human Rights

Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a mid-Atlantic coalition of faith communities. We seek to change the culture, policy or practices that cause torture or violate human dignity. Our guide is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the wisdom of our respective faiths.

About the Virginia Advocacy Group

The Virginia Advocacy Group is working to minimize the use of prolonged isolated confinement and related abusive treatment in the Commonwealth of Virginia prisons.


For VAG member media interviews:

  • IAHR, Charles Feinberg, 240-324-9160, Iahr.cfeinberg@gmail.com, @iahr_dc
  • IAHR, Gay Gardner, 703-627-6482, gaygarden@msn.com
  • VCC, Rev. Dr. Jonathan Barton, 804-321-3300 x-102, barton@vacouncilofchurches.org.
  • ACLU-VA, Bill Farrar APR, 804-523-2156, bfarrar@acluva.org, @vachangeagent
  • Virginia CURE, Carla Peterson, (703) 272-3624, carla4vacure@gmail.com
  • IAHR, mother of Kevin Snodgrass, Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, (703) 855-7871, iahr.ksnodgrass@gmail.com, @kimjsnodgrass

MORCA Testimony

Testimony in Support of Expanded Budget for MORCA

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

Interfaith Action for Human Rights

May 4, 2017

My name is Charles Feinberg and I am the Executive Director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR).  IAHR represents people of faith from Maryland, the District, and Virginia.  Our mission is to end policies and practices that promote torture in our society as well as affirming the dignity of each human being.  I am also a member of the DC Reentry Task Force and I am a resident of the District, residing in Ward 4. 

I am testifying in support of expanding the budget of MORCA in the following ways: 

  1. Strategic Planning: Funds should be added to MORCA’s budget to engage a strategic planning consultant. The plan will allow MORCA to clarify its role in the re-entry process, define its relationship with other system players, and create an accountability structure for achieving its goals as D.C.’s re-entry hub. A larger FY19 budget ask will be based upon the results of this strategic plan.
  2. Additional Staff: Fund 2 full-time case managers for MORCA. This will double the office’s capacity to serve its returning citizen clients in the short-term.

Returning citizens have to overcome many obstacles in order to become functioning independent residents of the District.  Men and women coming home from serving time in federal prison often do not recognize the city since it has changed rapidly in their absence.  They need assistance in navigating public transportation, in attaining a photo id, in purchasing a metro card, and in finding a place to live.  Returning citizens need guidance and assistance in how to go about looking for a job in our community.  Whether it is writing a resume or learning how to conduct themselves in a job interview, they need our support.  Often returning citizens need to learn new skills in order to become employable.  They need an agency who will be their support and their advocate.  They need one central office who will give them the information they need to begin to acclimate themselves to living in Washington.  

Last fall, I attended a Seminar at the Brookings Institute on Reentry and Recidivism. Many learned professors and attorneys spoke at this program.  I learned some important facts.  One fact is that the national recidivism rate for returning citizens is 51%.  I also learned that if a returning citizen can pass through the first 18 months home without incident; then the recidivism rate drops down 5 to 10%!   A number of the experts made the point that returning citizens are most vulnerable to breaking a parole rule or breaking the law during that first 18 months. 

Why is that?  We don’t give them the necessary support during that first year and a half home.  Consider how expensive housing is in this city.  Consider how difficult it is for a returning citizen to find work with a criminal record.  While the District has passed a ban the box law, it is a law that is easily circumvented. 

DC residents who are coming home, need an imaginative, well-staffed, and well-funded agency who will be there to give them the support they need.  They need one agency with one address who will organize their integration into the community.

Today, returning citizens have to negotiate a host of agencies whose staff often do not understand the needs of these men and women.  The way we handle reentry indicates that we as a community do not really care about these folks.  We communicate a message that they really don’t count or matter and that we would be just as happy if they were back in prison.  Often that is what happens.  They get the message and they return to prison. 

Let us at least start by funding two case workers for MORCA.  MORCA then will be able to begin to address the needs of returning citizens.

Two case workers, however, is not sufficient.  In order to effect change we need a vision and a plan for the men and women who return home every day.  The first step is put into the budget of this great city the resources for MORCA to develop a strategic plan for DC residents coming home.  This plan would incorporate values, vision, as well as the kind of staff needed to make the vision a reality.  It is really important that returning citizens be involved in the creation of the vision and the plan.  They are the experts.  They know what they need and they know what has been unhelpful.  By involving returning citizens in the creation of the plan, then we would be sending a strong message to them.  We would be saying you matter; your opinions matter.  We would be signaling to them that we want them to have a stake in the future of this city. We want them to be part of the future of District of Columbia. 

Once vision, values, and a plan are in place, then we can begin to figure out how to implement the plan.  We will have to build community support for the plan.  We will have to see if we can implement it in a series of short term stages.  If the community is involved in making this plan, then there will be support to implement and to find the funds to pay for it. 

Too often, returning citizens are looked upon as scapegoats whenever there is an uptick in crime.  Too often, we as a society assume that returning citizens are not important and are really bad people.  If we continue to send that message, then I assure you the recidivism rate will remain at 51%  But if we can send a message that we value returning citizens, that we want them to be part of our community, then we have an opportunity to reduce the numbers incarcerated and lessen the anger and bitterness among so many.

I urge this Council to take the first step by setting aside funds for MORCA to develop a strategic plan and to hire two case workers.

Testimony in Support of the DC Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program

District of Columbia Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program 

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

DC Council

May 4, 2017

My name is Charles Feinberg, I am the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights. Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a mid-Atlantic coalition of faith communities. We seek to change the culture, policy or practices that cause torture or violate human dignity. Our guide is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the wisdom of our respective faiths. Our main agenda is criminal justice reform in Maryland, the District, and Virginia as well as countering bigotry, especially anti-Muslim bigotry.  I am a DC resident and I reside in Ward 4. 

I speak in support of the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program (IIEP) which has the potential to make a real dent in the high unemployment rates for returning citizens. I am here to ask that as chairperson of this committee you work with your colleagues to appropriate up to $10 million to the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Fund (IIEF) for DC Law 21-159.  The Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program would provide business education and training for returning citizens to assist them in starting a business or fulfill other professional goals. The IIEP was passed unanimously by the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs and then by the full council in July, 2016. 

According to the recent report on Reentry issued by the Council for Court Excellence (CCE), “employment is a major problem for returning citizens.  Among employable returning citizens entering supervision during 2015, 71 percent reported they were unemployed.  Unfortunately, D.C.’s job market poses special challenges for the city’s returning citizens.  In 2012, nearly half of the job openings in the D.C. metro area required a college degree, a rate 10 percent higher than other metro areas.  It is projected that by 2020, 76 percent of all jobs in D.C. metro area will require post-secondary education.[1]

According to the CCE report, increased unemployment among returning citizens leads to decreases in drug dealing, violent crime, and property crime.  Returning citizens have to overcome many obstacles in order to find employment.  The majority of returning citizens remain unemployed.  According to the CCE report, “national surveys of returning citizens find that as many as 60 to 75 percent remain jobless up to a year after release.[i]  The CCE report documents that the lack of formal education, the lack of experience and training, employer resistance, and racial discrimination contribute to very high unemployment among returning citizens.

In addition, 31.5 percent of those under community supervision have less than a high school or GED certificate.  Those who are under the care of the D.C. Corrections have similar levels of educational achievement.  36.2 percent of men incarcerated at the DC jail have less than a high school education; 54.6 percent reported having a high school diploma or its equivalent; 3.1 percent reported have a college degree.  Similarly, 35.5 percent of women in the DC jail said they have less than a high school education; 47.9 percent reported having a high school or GED certificate, and only 4.1 percent reported having a college level education[2].  Contrast these levels of education with what one needs to secure employment in the District!

We must face up to certain realities.  Many people have hard time with school, no matter how good the school is.  These people are not necessarily incapable.  On the contrary many of them are very intelligent but their inner makeup resists the norms and practices of formal education.  Others are very smart but they learn so differently that it is hard for them to assimilate the material as it is presented.  I know this because my wife is a special education teacher.  She specializes teaching reading to children with learning disabilities.  She and her colleagues have often reported that many children with learning disabilities are very intelligent. Indeed, they become so frustrated because they are so intelligent and yet have such a hard time learning.  Many such students who are not given special help at a young age often fail at school.  They become so frustrated and angry that they drop out.  Some then engage in criminal acts in order to succeed. 

It is not realistic to expect returning citizens who have had low levels of educational achievement suddenly to become star students.  On the other hand, these returning citizens are capable, very intelligent, and given the right incentives and training could easily start their own businesses. 

This is why the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship Program could become an important component in a program to help returning citizens become economically independent.  The IIEP would provide a relatively short term program that would give returning citizens the skills to set up their own businesses.  Certainly one of the reasons some people are in prison is because they have difficulty taking orders and direction from others.  That is certainly another reason that they failed in school.  But given the opportunity to be their own boss, they could very likely succeed and excel. 

I have met a number of retuning citizens who have started their own businesses. They are incredibly imaginative and entrepreneurial.  They were able to succeed because someone at some point helped them.  Given a little help, they then became incredibly successful.

Finally, I have been a rabbi for almost 44 years. One of the major lessons I have learned in my life and career is that people’s imaginations need to be stimulated and challenged.  When we challenge and stimulate people, they become excited and hopeful.  Whole worlds open up before them. 

I urge this Council to fund fully the Incarceration to Incorporation Entrepreneurship ProgramGive hope to those returning from prison.  Help them become independent so that they can become productive and creative citizens in our community. 

[1] Beyond Second Chances, Council for Court Excellence, December 2016, p. vi.

[2] Ibid. p. 43.


Testimony In Support of Maryland Bill SB1015 & HB1001


Testimony in SUPPORT of SB1015 & HB1001

February 15, 2017

To: Maryland House Judiciary Committee

From: Suzanne O’Hatnick, President of Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR)

Re: SUPPORT for HB1001 & SB1015 Correctional Service - Restrictive Housing - Limitations

Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a mid-Atlantic interfaith human rights organization that focuses in Maryland on the intersection of public safety and human rights.  We appreciate having the opportunity to testify in SUPPORT of HB1001 (SB1015).

Last year the legislature passed bipartisan legislation that was signed into law mandating that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services report annually on its use of restrictive housing.  Restrictive housing means a physical separation  in which the inmate is placed in a locked room or cell alone or with another prisoner for approximately 22 hours or more in a 24 hour period.

The mandated report was issued in January 2017 for FY2016. It revealed some shocking statistics:

  • 68% of inmates in state prisons spent time in isolation - restrictive housing - for an average of 50 - 60 days in FY2016. Approximately a quarter of those inmates spent multiple periods in isolation.
  • 269 inmates were released directly to the public from restrictive housing in FY2016. 
  • 172 inmates diagnosed as Seriously Mentally Ill (SMI) spent time in isolation,
  • as did 9 juveniles ages 16 or younger.

Some background about how this legislation came to be developed is useful. In 2011 IAHR was asked by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to learn about how solitary confinement (current term of use is restrictive housing) was used in Maryland. Because of the pattern of abuse seen in US prisons abroad, there was a growing concern about the use of solitary confinement in US federal, state and local prisons and the potential for abuse in a situation where there was little information and no scrutiny.

In 2012 The Vera Institute of Justice did an assessment of Maryland’s use of restrictive housing - referred to at that time as administrative and disciplinary segregation. The Institute found that 8% of the population was in solitary at any given moment representing double the national average of use. In addition, the Institute found that use was arbitrary, varied from facility to facility and that time in isolation sometimes exceeded  even the maximum length of time in COMAR, which, at 360 days, they found also excessive. The Institute made 10 recommendations for change.

IAHR attempted to learn of the response to these recommendations, but was unable to get information voluntarily from DPSCS. In 2014 Senator Lisa Gladden and Delegate Jill P. Carter proposed legislation that  IAHR supported requiring a public reporting of the use of solitary confinement. DPSCS said they had no such thing and the bill did not make it out of committee..

in 2015 Senator Gladden and Delegate Carter once again introduced legislation to require reporting on the use of isolated confinement. We did not know what data DPSCS collected at that time and the argument that year was that we were asking for too much information that would be too costly to document. Again, the bill failed. Community support led by the ACLU, however, grew. The Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post ran editorials calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Later in 2015 through the query of a state legislator, it was learned that indeed, the situation had not really changed since 2011. Some data was provided to the legislator and in 2016 a bill was crafted to request the data that DPSCS already had. In 2016 the bill gained bi-partisan support with Senator Hough joining with Senator Gladden and Delegate Kittleman leading with Delegate Carter. The bill was signed into law in May 2016.

This year’s legislation is intended to support reform efforts recently initiated by DPSCS as recommended initially in 2012 by the Vera Institute of Justice, known for its work with states to reduce isolated confinement, and in 2016 by the National Institute of Corrections. There is clear evidence that extended periods of isolation can cause or exacerbate mental instability.  It appears that with so many being subjected to isolation in Maryland prisons,  restrictive housing is not being practiced as a last resort, but rather as a catch-all.

For that reason, IAHR strongly SUPPORTS Delegate Moon’s bill, HB1001, to limit the use of restrictive housing as a last resort rather than the first for infractions of rules.  There are times when it may be necessary. However, other methods need to be tried first - and there is ample evidence that it is possible to reduce isolated confinement and increase prison safety at the same time. One need only look to Colorado, Mississippi and New Mexico, among other states for examples.

Additionally, access to data and to prison visits upon request for a selected Working Group adds an element of transparency that has been missing.

For these reasons, IAHR urges members of the Judiciary Committee to SUPPORT HB1001 (SB1015).

Thank you for your service and for allowing this testimony.



Suzanne O’Hatnick

President, Board of Directors

Interfaith Action for Human Rights

Appeal to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

September 12, 2016


The Honorable Terry McAuliffe

Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia

Patrick Henry Building, 3rd floor

1111 East Broad Street

Richmond, VA 23219

Dear Governor McAuliffe:

We, the undersigned human rights, interfaith, civil liberties, and social justice organizations, are writing to urge you to implement reforms on the use of solitary confinement (sometimes called “restrictive housing” or “segregation”) in facilities across the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Last January, President Obama announced steps to reduce the use of isolated confinement in federal prisons, recognizing that it has been overused and can result in profound physiological and psychological damage.  Indeed, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that prolonged isolation can produce irreparable neurological harm to those subjected to it. 

Prolonged isolation of prisoners is increasingly recognized around the world as inhumane and a serious human rights violation.  The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state that solitary confinement should never be used for indefinite periods and in the rare circumstances in which it is used, no longer than 15 consecutive days. 

President Obama pointed out that the impact of prolonged isolation on prisoners’ mental health and ability to interact with others undermines their capacity to reintegrate into society when they are released.  The practice of solitary confinement is detrimental to public safety and the broader public interest in rehabilitation.  Moreover, permanently warehousing prisoners in isolation is much more expensive to taxpayers.

The changes implemented by President Obama include: 1.) a ban on isolating juvenile offenders; 2.) placing individuals who need to be in protective custody in less restrictive settings; and 3.) providing mentally ill inmates with alternative housing and access to mental health services.  The President announced that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would adopt fifty guiding principles recommended by the Department of Justice (DOJ).  These principles include the following:

  • Inmates should be housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of staff, other inmates, and the public.
  • Correctional systems should always be able to clearly articulate the specific reason(s) for an inmate’s placement and retention in restrictive housing.
  • For every inmate in restrictive housing, correctional staff should develop a clear plan for returning the inmate to less restrictive conditions as promptly as possible.  The plan should be shared with the inmate, unless doing so would jeopardize the safety of the inmate, staff, other inmates, or the public.
  • An inmate’s initial and ongoing placement in restrictive housing should be regularly reviewed by a multi-disciplinary staff committee, which should include not only the leadership of the institution where the inmate is housed, but also medical and mental health professionals. 

The ACLU of Virginia wrote to you on January 26, 2016, asking you to follow the President’s lead and ban all use of solitary confinement in the juvenile justice system and to take action to reduce the use of solitary confinement in adult prisons.

The DOJ has now recommended that all corrections systems implement the fifty guiding principles adopted by the federal BOP.  Accordingly, we, the undersigned, ask you to direct the Virginia Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice to implement these guidelines in all state facilities in the Commonwealth of Virginia and to incorporate these guidelines in the standards used to accredit local and regional jails.  We further urge you to require the governing boards of these agencies to establish a mechanism for verifying ongoing compliance with these principles.  These actions would help consolidate your administration’s legacy as one that is serious about promoting rehabilitation and facilitating reintegration of criminal offenders as productive members of society. 

Although the practice of confining prisoners to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day is carried out under a variety of housing labels, and although inmates confined in this way may have varying degrees of access to reading material, television, and other electronic media, there is undeniable damage to those who spend nearly all their time confined to their cells with no meaningful human contact.  These conditions of confinement are especially inappropriate for juveniles and mentally ill prisoners.  As a first step toward implementing the DOJ guidelines, we urge you to follow the President’s lead by banning segregation/restrictive housing for juvenile offenders and those with serious mental illness.

Moreover, we urge you to devote special attention to the need for transparency in the use of segregation/restrictive housing.  Human rights organizations, including Interfaith Action for Human Rights, have documented instances in which inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge State Prisons, after being charged with a disciplinary infraction, have languished in segregation for periods far exceeding the 30-day limit on disciplinary segregation in the Virginia Department of Corrections’ operating procedures, without receiving any indication of when they can expect to return to the general prison population.  This is clearly inconsistent with the DOJ guidelines.

Implementing the DOJ guidelines and following the example the President set with respect to federal prisons will help protect public safety, save taxpayer funds, and prevent unjustifiable harm to inmates that thwarts their ability to reenter society in a constructive manner.  We hope to hear from you soon regarding the specific corrective action you will be taking.


American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia

Amnesty International USA

Interfaith Action for Human RIghts

National Religious Campaign Against Torture

Social Action Linking Together (SALT)

Virginia Council of Churches

Virginia CURE

Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy


IAHR's Banner Project

by Bonnie Tamres-Moore 


I am the director of The Banner Project, which is sponsored by Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR). It is co-sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign

IAHR decided to create The Banner Project because there has been a precipitous rise in anti-Muslim bigotry in America, particularly in the past 6 months. When constant messages of hatred and fear of Muslims surround the public, many people begin to think that this is normal.   They often become silent.  Yet, silence in the face of expressions of hatred and scapegoating creates a fertile space for fear and hatred to grow. As John Wesley said, “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace “

When we begin to regard any group of people as the “other”, we then find them less worthy, less human, and we are willing to act in ways that are morally reprehensible.  I often think of one my favorite quotes by Martin Luther King, “we must speak with all humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak”.  This quote means so much to me because it reminds me to have humility, to realize I don’t know everything, but to remember I still have the moral responsibility to speak.  

Our hope at IAHR is that The Banner Project will engender concrete and meaningful connection with the Muslim community wherever the banners hang as well as witness.  We are seeing this hope realized in ways that are joyful and unexpected. Many faith communities across the country that are hanging the banner are reaching out in friendship and support to the local Muslim community and the Muslim community is reaching out as well.

Hanging the banner is an act of visual witness .Visual witness is powerful in changing hearts and minds. It can be a challenge, a catalyst and a symbol for a new way of thinking about each other - a new way of thinking about the inviolate dignity of every human being.

You will find below four statements of faith leaders regarding the banner project.  


On Hanging the Banner – Faith Leaders Speak 

We've had a very positive reaction in our congregation to the Banner Project. I've heard nothing but overwhelming support for the banner and for the public witness of our congregation and others in the face of so much Islamophobia. 


There was some concern that the banner would just be a banner. Are we just hanging a banner outside and doing nothing to work with our Muslim neighbors? What does it mean, after all, to stand with our Muslim neighbors if it doesn't mean meeting with them and working with them? And so I think the banner has helped not only put in relief work that we're already doing but it's also helped push us to think about what we will continue to do to be in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors. 

Rev John Elford, University United Methodist Church 

University Baptist Church has had an enthusiastic response from the congregation concerning the Banner Project. It fits so well with our historic commitment to interfaith and ecumenical friendship.  Because of one negative phone call, we decided to place a blurb on our website regarding our participation in the project (which will be posted when our internet is repaired.) Thank you for the opportunity to bear witness to our American belief in equality, our Baptist belief in religious liberty, and our Christian belief in universal love. 

Rev Larry Bethune, Senior Minister, University Baptist Church 

When we unfurled our banner, the people in attendance applauded!

Rev Mary Wilson, Pastor, Church of the Savior 

The reaction to the banner by our members, especially on social media like Facebook, has been very positive. Everyone is proud to be part of a synagogue that is taking this public stand. We’ve received an outpouring of gratitude from the Austin Muslim community, too.

Rabbi Steven Folberg, Senior Rabbi, Beth Israel




You Can Order a Banner by Clicking Here


Interview with Rick Raemisch

Issue 2.  Field Leaders: Safe Alternatives to Solitary Confinement March, 2016

Moving Beyond Solitary Confinement: Making the Case for Public Safety



An Interview with Rick Raemisch

Director of the Department of Corrections, Colorado


In 2011, when Tom Clements was hired as Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), 1500 people – nearly 7 percent of the state’s prisoners – were in solitary confinement. A person stayed in a cell 23 hours a day, often for years. Then one day, often with no transition, he or she was on a bus going home. Tom Clements wanted to change the state’s use of solitary confinement, and in the two years he had in office, he cut the number of people in solitary confinement in half.  But he didn’t get the chance to complete his work. On March 19, 2013, he opened the door of his home and was murdered by a man who had recently been released directly to the community from solitary confinement.   

As Tom Clements’s successor, Rick Raemisch was charged by Governor John Hickenlooper with making the changes Tom Clements had not lived long enough to complete. The Governor wanted to limit or eliminate solitary confinement for people with mental illness. He wanted to understand and address the needs of people who were in solitary confinement for long periods. And he wanted to reduce the number of them released back to their community without preparation.

The new Director shared the passion for change, and he thought it would help him as a leader to understand something of what it felt like to endure solitary confinement. In January 2014 he had himself committed to an administrative segregation cell with a steel door and the bed, toilet, and sink bolted to the floor. He expected some quiet time, he says, but there was no quiet: only blaring televisions, banging, and the loud screaming of angry prisoners. The lights stayed on all night, and prisoners were awakened at intervals throughout the night for required checks by correctional officers. After only 20 hours, as he wrote in a New York Times editorial, he was wondering how long it would take for the experience to “chip away” at his sane mind.[1] What would it be like to endure this for years? What would it be like to endure it with mental illness?

A System Transformed

Today, Rick Raemisch says, a person walking through Colorado’s repurposed Supermax prison hears no banging and screaming, but instead, quiet voices. The maximum amount of time anyone spends in solitary confinement is one year, and that is only for the most violent offenders. When people go in, they know why they are there, and they know when they will get out. This is in sharp contrast to the “level” system used in many states, in which people must work their way down through different levels to earn release; one bad day can take you back to level one, and months can become years as the indefinite confinement goes on.

Today, no one is released directly from solitary to the community; instead, the state has developed a step down program to prepare people for community law. By state law, no one classified as seriously mentally ill can be held in solitary. The state has a total of 150 people in restrictive housing – less than 1 percent of the total prison population.

Owning the Vision, Moving as a Team                                                                                        

Director Raemisch did not make these changes by fiat. He knew his staff – especially the wardens and their staff – had to believe in them or the new policies would fail. Even more, he knew he needed their help. So the new Director invited those who knew the system best to help him change it.

His pitch was simple and direct. “We’ve lost sight of our mission,” he told his managers. “We’re using segregation to try to keep the prisons safe and easy to run. But what about the community? What about public safety?” People can easily end up in solitary for having a big mouth or not following the rules. The goal is efficiency. But what happens when they come home after all those years without human interaction? Rick Raemisch challenged his staff with a question: “Do you want someone who has been in solitary confinement for years moving next door?” If DOC’s primary mission is public safety, he asked, then how is returning someone to the community in worse shape than when they entered the system serving the public? “You’re saying someone is too dangerous to be in the general population, but we can release them directly back to the community? That’s a good policy?”

The Colorado team got it, and they got busy. Groups of corrections staff worked together from the ground up, debating issues and building a new process. Staff were all part of the policy change and helped develop new procedures. Minor offenses now result in minor sanctions: loss of the TV for a while, limited canteen, or a loss of privileges. New recruits are carefully trained not simply on the new procedures, but on the radically new philosophy behind them. Staff are safer because of the changes – inmate on staff assaults are the lowest since 2006 – but that doesn’t mean their jobs are easier. Now, officers are problem solvers and have some tools to prevent infractions. For example, an inmate can request time in a quiet de-escalation room. Instead of “blowing sky high,” the person can say, “I need some time out.”

No Map, No Road: But Moving Ahead Anyhow  

On June 6, 2014, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed legislation barring the state from placing people who are incarcerated and have serious mental illness (such as schizophrenia) in long-term solitary confinement. Today, the Director believes the system is in full compliance. How does he know? Before anyone is placed in segregation, he or she must be assessed for the presence of serious mental illness. Working as a team, clinical experts and correctional officers determine whether a mental illness may have caused the violation. If so, the response is treatment, not punishment.

People who are incarcerated with mental illness, many of whom were once held in solitary confinement, are housed in one of two prisons where they receive treatment. For Colorado, the Director says, there was no map and no road to where they wanted to go; but through trial and error and persistent teamwork, they are moving. The innovative “10 and 10” program ensures that people with serious mental illness are out of their cells at least 10 hours for treatment and 10 hours for recreation every week. Rick Raemisch says with satisfaction, “No more putting them in a cell 23 hours a day and letting the demons chase them around.”

The team tracks data with care to understand the results of the changes they are making, and the results are promising. Less use of restraints. Less violence. Fewer cell extractions. Fewer assaults. Less self-harm. Less recidivism. “We believe these reforms have led to safer institutions,” said Director Raemisch, “and in the long run, since 97% of our inmates return to the community, they have also led to safer communities.”

“This Can Be Done Anywhere”

Rick Raemisch does not believe the changes made in Colorado are the results of a unique set of circumstances. He believes any system can tackle the problem of excessive use of solitary confinement and succeed. He is currently working with other members of the American Correctional Association to develop new standards to help the field move forward. His share of “Catholic guilt,” he says, may be part of what drives him to “do the right thing.” His vision is partly faith driven: “But some of it is just because we are human beings.”

For those who want to change their systems, he has only encouragement. “You have to have a clear vision, and you have to push it. Talk about it. Explain the ‘why.’ Have some passion. Put a team together as passionate as you are – and go to work.”

Thank you, Colorado, for being a pathfinder in safe alternatives to solitary confinement!    



[1] Rick Raemisch, My Night in Solitary. New York Times, February 21, 2014. 


Maryland Legislative Session 2016

Prisoners’ Rights Coalition—Bill Update (2.22.2016) 

HB1180 Correctional Services - Restrictive Housing - Report

Requiring the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services on or before October 1 each year to submit specified data to the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention relating to the use of restrictive housing in correctional facilities; and requiring the Department to make the information submitted available on the Department's Web site.  

See the bill site here

Sponsors: Delegates Jill Carter & Trent Kittleman

Hearing date:  February 26 at 1pm

Committee: House Judiciary Committee (Room 101, House Office Building, Annapolis, MD 21401)

Contact re: questions and testimony suzanneohatnick@comcast.net 

HB946 Correctional Services - Restrictive Housing - Report (cross-file of HB1180)

Requiring the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services on or before October 1 each year to submit specified data to the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention relating to the use of restrictive housing in correctional facilities; and requiring the Department to make the information submitted available on the Department's Web site.  

See the bill site here 

Sponsors: Senators Michael Hough and Lisa Gladden

Hearing date:  March 2 at 1pm

Committee: Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (2 East Miller Senate Office Building, Annapolis, MD 21401)

Contact re: questions and testimony suzanneohatnick@comcast.net 

HB1312 Justice Reinvestment Act (consensus bill)

Requiring the Division of Parole and Probation to conduct a specified risk and needs assessment on specified inmates and include the results in a specified case record; altering the manner in which specified diminution credits may be earned; authorizing the Division to develop and modify the conditions of probation or suspension of sentences for the purpose of imposing specified graduated sanctions; establishing the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Board and the Local Government Justice Reinvestment Commission; etc.

See the bill site here 

Sponsor: Speaker Busch

Hearing date: March 4 at 1pm

Committee: House Judiciary Committee (Room 101, House Office Building, Annapolis, MD 21401)

SB1005 Justice Reinvestment Act (consensus bill) (cross-file of HB1312)

Requiring the Division of Parole and Probation to conduct a specified risk and needs assessment on specified inmates and include the results in a specified case record; altering the manner in which specified diminution credits may be earned; authorizing the Division to develop and modify the conditions of probation or suspension of sentences for the purpose of imposing specified graduated sanctions; establishing the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Board and the Local Government Justice Reinvestment Commission; etc.

See the bill site here 

Sponsor: President Miller

Hearing date: March 2, 1 pm, in the Senate Office Building. 

Committee: Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (2 East Miller Senate Office Building, Annapolis, MD 21401)

HB882 Inmates - Life Imprisonment - Parole Reform

Repealing specified provisions that provide that inmates serving a term of life imprisonment may be paroled only with the Governor's approval, subject to specified provisions; repealing specified provisions that require specified parole decisions to be transmitted to the Governor under specified circumstances; repealing specified provisions that authorize the Governor to disapprove specified parole decisions in a specified manner; etc.

See the bill site here 

Sponsor: Delegate Carter

Hearing date: March 10 at 1pm

Committee: House Judiciary Committee (Room 101, House Office Building, Annapolis, MD 21401)

Contact re: questions and testimony waltermandalalomax@hotmail.com 

SB531 Inmates - Life Imprisonment - Parole Reform (cross-file of HB882)

Repealing specified provisions that provide that inmates serving a term of life imprisonment may be paroled only with the Governor's approval, subject to specified provisions; repealing specified provisions that require specified parole decisions to be transmitted to the Governor under specified circumstances; repealing specified provisions that authorize the Governor to disapprove specified parole decisions in a specified manner; etc.

See the bill site here 

Sponsor: Senator McFadden

Hearing date: March 2 at 1pm

Committee: Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (2 East Miller Senate Office Building, Annapolis, MD 21401)

Contact re: questions and testimony waltermandalalomax@hotmail.com 

HB906 Correctional Services - Special Requirements for Elderly, Chronically Ill, and Terminally Ill Inmates

Requiring each State and local correctional facility to accommodate the special needs of elderly, chronically ill, and terminally ill inmates and detainees in accordance with standards, guidelines, and recommendations issued or endorsed by the National Institute of Corrections; requiring the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to designate certain sites for the housing of inmates who are over the age of 64, chronically ill, or terminally ill; etc.

See the bill site here 

Sponsor: Delegate Sydnor

Hearing date: March 8 at 1pm

Committee: House Judiciary Committee (Room 101, House Office Building, Annapolis, MD 21401)

Contact re: questions and testimony holness@aclu-md.org   

SB433 Correctional Services - Special Requirements for Elderly, Chronically Ill, and Terminally Ill Inmates (cross-file of HB906)

Requiring each State and local correctional facility to accommodate the special needs of elderly, chronically ill, and terminally ill inmates and detainees in accordance with standards, guidelines, and recommendations issued or endorsed by the National Institute of Corrections; requiring the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to designate certain sites for the housing of inmates who are over the age of 64, chronically ill, or terminally ill; etc.

See the bill site here 

Sponsor: Senator Nathan-Pulliam

Hearing date: February 24 at 1pm

Committee: Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (2 East Miller Senate Office Building, Annapolis, MD 21401)

Contact re: questions and testimony holness@aclu-md.org

HB1046 Criminal Procedure - Pretrial Release
Requiring a judicial officer to order the pretrial release of a person charged with a crime on personal recognizance, on nonfinancial conditions, or on execution of an unsecured appearance bond in an amount specified by the court under specified circumstances; requiring a judicial officer to order the pretrial release of a specified person subject to a specified condition or combination of conditions, under specified circumstances; etc.
Sponsors: Delegates DumaisBarron, and Clippinger
Hearing Date: House of Delegates on March 1 at 1 pm.
Committee: Judiciary

We are All God's Children

We are all God’s children

During President Barack Obama’s historic address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he said, “At a time when others are trying to divide us along lines of religion or sect, we have to reaffirm that most fundamental of truths: We are all God’s children. We’re all born equal, with inherent dignity.”

The idea that we are all God’s children is rooted in the closing verses of the first chapter of Genesis, which proclaims that God created the world and created human beings — male and female — in His image.

Each human being then is unique because he or she embodies in some way the image of God. Unlike trees or animals, God created human beings individually, not in groups. This has moral significance since it means that all of us are special and different from each other.

By describing that God created the first man and woman individually, the Torah is teaching us that no person can say that my father or mother is greater than yours, since we are all descended from the same father and mother. Another implication of these verses is that no one individual should be stereotyped because he or she belongs to a particular group or tribe. Our individuality transcends the groups we may be born into or to which we freely associate.

We live in a time when too many political, religious and public figures have ignored this teaching. By casting suspicion on the entire American Muslim community or on Islam itself, these figures are rebelling against this teaching and implicitly denying that each and every one of us is created in the image of God.
It is true that there are Muslims who have succumbed to fantasies of dominance through resorting to brutality, torture and murder. Often these fantasies are motivated by a distorted reading of the Koran.

But we should not jump to the conclusion that all Muslims read the Koran this way. There are many Christians who believe that abortions are an act of murder. Some of these Christians have committed acts of violence against abortion providers because of their faith. But I have never heard anyone jump to the conclusion that Christianity or all Christians believe that violence against abortion providers is morally legitimate. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are peaceful and law abiding citizens just as the overwhelming majority of Christians and Jews are peaceful and law abiding.

At the Islamic Society, the president recounted how he receives many letters from Muslim Americans who feel frightened and demeaned: “I’ve had people write to me and say, ‘I feel like I’m a second-class citizen.’ I’ve had mothers write and say, ‘My heart cries every night,’ thinking about how her daughter might be treated at school. A girl from Ohio, 13 years old, told me, ‘I’m scared.’ A girl from Texas signed her letter ‘a confused 14-year-old trying to find her place in the world.’”
This is decidedly not OK.

Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a group of people of faith from Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, is calling upon all religious communities to show support for our Muslim neighbors, co-workers and friends who are feeling attacked and isolated. We are asking communities of faith to display on their property banners that read “Honor God — Say No to anti-Muslim bigotry,” or “We stand with Muslim Americans.”

In addition to affirming the dignity of each human being, we are also committed to opposing and changing policies and practices that promote torture in our society. To that end we are part of a broad coalition that wants to put an end to the abuse of solitary confinement in state and federal prisons.

We understand that prisoners have been convicted of crimes. Many of them have committed terrible acts of violence. We do not question the importance of punishment for crimes of violence and of property. But no person should be physically or verbally abused even if they have abused others. In order to teach others to be respectful, we have to be respectful of others.

Respect for the dignity of each human being is an essential value of the Torah and our faith. It can be challenging to be respectful of people who have done horrible deeds.   The Torah challenges us to remember that, as the president said last week in Baltimore, "we are all God’s children."

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