"It is not Good to be Alone"

"It is not Good to be Alone"

“Not Good to be Alone”

(editor's note: This is a sermon Rabbi Feinberg gave via zoom at Temple Beth El in Richmond, VA on October 2, 2021)

IAHR is an interfaith group whose values are rooted in this week’s Torah reading which includes the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. The Torah opens with a dramatic statement that every human being is created in the image of God. One implication of this suggestive teaching is that everyone—no matter what he or she has done—should be treated with respect. We all bear God’s image and therefore abusing a person is an offense against God. 

The other value that our group embraces is stated explicitly in chapter 2: it is not good for a human being to be alone. “Lo Tov heyot Adam l’vado; ehehseh lo ezer k’negdo.” We human beings are social animals. We thrive we have connections and relationships with other human beings. We wither, become depressed, and become physically ill when we are deprived of connections.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture defined one kind of torture as isolating a person for 22 or 23 hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days. Prisons throughout the United States routinely isolate people for more than consecutive days for 22 to 23 hours a day. For many days, especially on weekends, people in isolated confinement don’t have any time out of their cell. Since covid hit, prisons have routinely isolated people for very long times. 

The State of Virginia says it doesn’t practice solitary confinement or prolonged isolation anymore. Indeed, the State of VA says that it everyone in a VA state prison has at least 4 hours a day of out of cell time. Yet we have received many personal testimonies from many incarcerated people saying that this isn’t true. That sadly, isolated confinement continues throughout the state prison system. 

Within the last 6 months we have received many letters from men and women who are incarcerated in a Virginia state prison. I am going to read an excerpt from two of these letters.  One letter is from a person I will call T.C. to protect his privacy. The other person is from Marqui who has given me permission to publicize his letter on our website. And you can find the whole letter on our website under the heading “Letters from Prison.”

My name is T.C.; I have been incarcerated since 2003 for robberies I committed when I was 15 years old. I received 47 years and throughout my prison sentence I’ve been to solitary confinement on many occasions! It never helped me in any way.

To be honest it brought anxiety, stress, and agony to me and if you are not strong it can cause many different mental illness.  I’ve seen a few inmates commit suicide or try to commit suicide while in solitary confinement. You are only able to use the phone twice a month and it feels like you are cut off from the world. I’ve also been to Special Housing Unit (S.H.U.) for absolutely no reason on the pretense of investigation or “special investigation unit.” I have been in solitary confinement for weeks and sometimes months without a charge! I strongly feel like solitary confinement doesn’t work. I have not been in solitary confinement since 2019 and I don’t want to go back. 

Marqui Clardy in a Virginia State Prison in Lawrenceville, VA

When offenders exhibit poor behavior, such as breaking institutional rules, staff are allowed to punish us in countless ways. They write infractions; put us in solitary confinement; fire us from our jobs; take our commissary, phone, email, and visitation privileges; order us to pay fines; transfer us to stricter, higher-level facilities; even add additional time to our prison sentences. The list of punishments at their disposal is too long to fit in this essay. And there is no limit to how much punishment can be doled out to any single offender; meaning if he perpetually displays poor behavior, he will continue being punished again and again and again for each incident.

Good behavior, on the other hand, goes largely unrewarded in prison. In fact, the only reward is being placed at the highest "good time" level. But this is not a genuine reward, as it simply allows us to remain eligible for our state's truth-in-sentencing percentage. Unlike the never-ending scroll of punishments, they use for poor behavior, staff do not continue rewarding us for positive strides such as earning college credits and vocational trades, completing rehabilitative programs, making personal accomplishments, remaining free of infractions for extended periods of time, etc. For those deeds, we aren't hired for jobs or given pay raises. We aren't given extra commissary, phone, email, or visitation privileges. We aren't continually transferred to lower-level facilities to be among other model inmates. Most importantly, we aren't allowed to earn extra time from our prison sentences. Unlike the near infinite punishments allowed for poor behavior, there are no substantive rewards given for good behavior.

Marqui’s letter highlights how punishment is the central feature of our criminal justice system. The goal is to punish people who have been convicted of crimes. Rehabilitation is not really part of the mission of our correctional institutions. Incarcerated people are not given the medical, psychological, and educational support to help them make different decisions for themselves. Educational programs are limited in prison. You can get a GED but that is about it. Here and there some universities have established courses in prisons. Georgetown University has a course that meets weekly in a Maryland State Prison. The class consists of 15 Georgetown students and 15 incarcerated men. But these programs are few and far between and they touch only a very small percentage of incarcerated people. 

Many people in prison suffer from some mental illness. At a meeting in the winter of 2020, prior to covid, the VA Director of Behavioral Services said that 20 years ago perhaps 10% of the prison population was diagnosed with a mental illness. Today, she said, it is over 30%. Yet prisons offer very few psychological or psychiatric services to those suffering with a mental illness. Too often when people diagnosed with a mental illness act out in some way, they are placed in solitary confinement. 

Too often when incarcerated persons tries to hurt himself or even take his life, they are stripped naked and placed in solitary. They are placed on suicide watch. Often another incarcerated person is stationed outside the cell to watch to make sure he doesn’t try it again. Instead of giving such people psychological or psychiatric support, they are punished by putting them in solitary in very difficult conditions.

I believe that there are spiritual, moral, and practical reasons for ending prolonged isolation in our prisons and jails. The spiritual reason I mentioned: we are created in God’s image. We should not abuse anybody including people who have committed crimes. The moral reason is that isolating an individual deprives him or her of human contact which undermines the physical and mental health of an individual. There is a practical reason as well. 95% of those incarcerated will be released. Does it make any sense for the rest of us to have a person leave prison angrier and more broken than when he or she first entered a prison? But by abusing incarcerated people, we often leave them more bitter and more broken than when they came in.

Then when they are released, we keep punishing them. Because they have been convicted of a felony, they are felons. Felons often cannot find a place to live. Few realtors will rent to them. Felons often cannot find any kind of work because of their record. Felons cannot rejoin professional organizations and in many states felons cannot vote. 

We need to have a different vision for our criminal justice system. It must be a vision rooted in restorative justice and rehabilitation. It must be a system that doesn’t define an individual by the worst mistake they have made in their lives. It must be a system that truly believes that people can change; they can do teshuvah (repentance) and seek forgiveness. Our system believes only in beating people down. Then we wonder why there is so much recidivism. 

I believe people of faith, people who identify with religious traditions and communities have an important role in helping all of us rethink how we perceive people who have committed crimes. I ask you to support our work and get involved. It is time we act on our belief that we are all created in God’s image.