The Path Ahead
Rabbi Charles Feinberg
4th Annual Human Rights at the Prison Door
Thursday, October 27, 2022
Before I begin my formal remarks, I want to thank the founders of IAHR, the first board members: Suzanne O’Hatnick, Gay Gardner, Bonnie Tamres-Moore, Jack Lahr, Zainab Chaudry, Dick Marks, and Rev Maybelle Bennett. A special mention goes to Susan Kerin, who while not on the founding board of IAHR, was instrumental in creating our first website and in supporting what we were about to embark on.
We were united by our commitment in our mission and our work. As many of you know, I was a congregational rabbi for 42 years. Part of the challenge of being a leader in a religious community is bringing together a group of people who are sometimes not united around a mission and who have differing opinions on what should be the top priorities of the congregation. When the group asked me to become the executive director upon my retirement from this synagogue, I was excited. I felt I was part of a group who was united in their dedication to the mission and to what our priorities should be. In a sense that made the work easy.
I especially want to thank Sue Emmer and Brian Hess, who recently became board members and who took on the responsibility of planning this event. They have done a outstanding job and they deserve everyone’s thanks.
They could not have done such an outstanding without the able assistance of Brittney Floyd, IAHR’s database entry specialist, social media director, and my assistant. Special thanks to Brittney for making sure the zoom goes well. I also want to thank Natasha White, who is IAHR’s director of community engagement in Virginia. She made a special trip to be with us tonight. Natasha has done excellent work reaching out to many different community and religious groups throughout the state of Virginia. Special thanks should go to Kim Haven, who is IAHR’s legislative liaison with the Maryland Legislature. We contract with Kim each year to shepherd our legislation through the Maryland Legislature. Kim has done outstanding work representing IAHR and getting several legislative bills passed. Please give a hand to Brittney, Natasha, and Kim.
Finally, I want to welcome Rev Dr. David Lindsey who has already taken up the mantle of leadership. I will be formally stepping down at the end of December, but David has begun and has already made many excellent contributions to IAHR. I have every confidence that David will be an outstanding leader and will develop our work in new and exciting ways. Please give your thanks to Rev Lindsey.
What Drew Me to This Work
People often express surprise that I have become dedicated to working on human rights abuses in prisons. They don’t perceive that this is something that a rabbi would choose to be involved in. 40 years ago I was a congregational rabbi in Madison, WI. Sadly, that was a time as it is today when Central American refugees were a divisive political issue. The synagogue I led, Beth Israel Center, decided to become a sanctuary congregation. We along with three other churches welcomed a Guatemalan family of six: a mother, father, and four little children. The father was an union organizer in Guatemala and one of his colleagues was assassinated. Fearing that he was next, he picked up his family and went north. Our government at the time refused to welcome people such as the Gonzalez family as refugees. They were clearly fleeing political oppression. We welcomed them, we found an apartment for the whole family, and we supported them for almost 18 months until they were able to legally emigrate to Canada.
People leaving prison in this country are not that different than refugees fleeing oppression in a distant country. Too often incarcerated people are abused sometimes by other incarcerated people, but just as much if not more by correctional officers. Sometimes, they fear for their lives. If they complain and protest unfair treatment, often correctional officers will retaliate and make their lives miserable.
Many times, people are put in extended solitary confinement without being told why they are being punished. Then they have to put up with the official line that solitary is never used to punish anybody. People in prison live in a society in which they have no power and which they are incredibly vulnerable to the power of the people who run the institution. Too often people leave prison more broken than when they entered.
When the incarcerated come home what do we do? We punish them some more. We make it exceedingly difficult to find housing and employment. For those who enter prison without an adequate education or with few skills, they come out without an adequate education and few skills. We don’t use prison to help people who need more education to receive it. Then we are surprised that they cannot make it when they are released. Nor does prison help people understand how the world has changed during the time they have been incarcerated. Think about someone who entered prison 25 yeas ago. 25 years ago, few people used cell phones, email was just becoming widely used, and no one drove a hybrid or electric car. 25 years ago people were still driving Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, and Saturns. No one ordered clothes or chairs from Amazon, only books and music.
I got involved in prison work for the same reason I was involved in welcoming refugees and migrants. The Hebrew Bible teaches us that are three commandments to love: God, our neighbor, and the stranger. Incarcerated people too often are strangers or neighbors and need our love and support. Just as we don’t give our love and support to refugees and migrants, we don’t give our love and support to incarcerated people. That needs to change.
I also got involved in this work for another reason. I believe in the teaching that opens the book of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible: every human being is created in the image of God. For me that means that every human has an irreducible core that is holy, that reflects the divine. Every human being, no matter what he or she has done, must be treated with respect because they reflect God’s image. Sadly, people in prison are rarely, if at all, treated with any respect. Treat them like animals they will act like animals.
The creation story also underlies my faith in another way. People can change. Every day is an occasion for change. In the Jewish daily prayer we say twice each morning this phrase: “In His goodness, God renews the act of creation every day.” Every day God offers us the opportunity to change our habits and the way we live. This work has shown me example after example of how people who were out of control, who committed serious crimes, changed their lives. Our pen pals often give eloquent testimony of how they have changed. They are not the same person they were when they entered prison. People do change. Even people who have committed terrible crimes can change and become renewed. They discover their holy core. They come to understand that they were created in the image of God. All they want is an opportunity to make something out of their lives. They need the tools to do that---tools that we can give them. All I can tell you is how satisfying and hopeful it is to meet people who have changed.
What We Have Uncovered
Over the last 8 years, we have uncovered certain abusive and to say the least disrespectful practices. When I say “we have discovered,” I mean those of us who have had little or no contact with criminal justice in the United States. The people on the inside and their loved ones know this. The first thing we have learned is how important is for people not exposed to criminal justice in the United States to know what goes on in our prisons. This is what I believe: change will not occur unless there is a coalition of those who know first-hand what goes on in prisons with those who have never stepped one minute in a prison. Incarcerated people, returning citizens, and their loved ones have to be our teachers and leaders. But they cannot do it alone. We—the unaffected—must get involved for change to occur.
We—the innocent ones—the ones with no criminal justice experience—have learned that in the words of the Director of the Virginia Dept of Corrections, “solitary is the basic way we maintain security in our prisons.” Solitary—people held in cages for 20-22 hours a day for longer than 15 consecutive days—is the foundation of the prison security system. We have learned that people can be held in solitary for months and years without any real reason for doing so. We have learned from the survivors of solitary what it has done to their mind and soul.
We have learned that medical care is usually inadequate and often not available to people with serious illnesses. Many people with long sentences become middle aged and elderly in prisons. Like all middle aged and elderly people, they come down with acute and chronic illnesses. They receive inadequate care for which they often have to wait for a long time.
We have learned that attack dogs are used in Virginia prisons to break up altercations and serious fights. We have heard testimony from survivors of these attacks how they have been crippled for life because of these attacks. We heard testimony this last year from a man who can no longer walk by himself because he was mauled by a dog.
The Path Ahead
What should be our priorities for the short term and the long term. In the longer term, we should all commit to IAHR’s vision. We are people of faith who educate and advocate in Maryland, DC, and Virginia for corrections systems that avoid unnecessarily punitive practices such as solitary confinement instead of focusing on rehabilitation and successful reentry. We must change the culture in our prisons so that people are supported to make better decisions for themselves. So many people who are perpetrators of crime are also victims of crime. Our prisons need to become safe places so people can heal from the trauma that they may have experienced and which they may have inflicted on others.
Second, we need to expand our coalitions to include many more religious communities representing different faith traditions. I believe strongly that if we as people of faith representing different faith communities can speak with one voice on the need for prison reform, we can influence public policy. What binds us together as an interfaith organization is the belief that people should be treated with respect, no matter what they may have done. When we speak about criminal justice, we use the language of our faith traditions. We are not necessarily liberal or conservative, libertarian or radical. We are people of faith who speak God’s word that every human being must be respected. Because of our faith, we can transcend and overcome the bitter political division in our country. We need your help and support to reach out to other people of faith to enlist their support. We need your help to enlist different religious communities in our holy work.
Third, we need to end prolonged solitary confinement in our federal and state prisons and in our local jails. This year, we are leading two campaigns to end solitary: one in Virginia and one in Maryland. We are also involved in the coalition to end solitary at the DC Jail. We need your support to do this. We need you to contact your legislators and to show up in Annapolis or Richmond to support our legislation.
Fourth, passing legislation to end solitary is only the beginning of our journey. The next step is to create through legislation independent oversight agencies who will have real authority and power to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. The mission of such a commission is to ensure that the Departments of Corrections is following the law. Right now, the departments investigate themselves. Needless to say, these investigations do not inspire much confidence.
Fifth, we need to invest in the staffs of our prisons and jails. Too often correctional officers lack the training needed to work with people who have been both perpetrators of crime and victims of crime. They are not trained in de-escalating conflict. They are not trained in how to deal with people who have mental illness. They are paid accordingly. We have a situation in which some of the most broken people in our society are being managed by some of our most ill-trained people in our society. It is time to invest in people.
There is so much more that must be done in our prisons: from raising the standards of medical care to providing better and more educational opportunities for the incarcerated.
I will end with a quote from a second century Rabbi who is often quoted at occasions such as these. His name was Tarfon, Rabbi Tarfon. He taught that “it is not upon us to finish the work but we are not free to desist from it. The day is short, the work is great.
The workers are lazy but the reward is great. The Master is insistent.” God calls. It is time that we answer the call.
It has been an honor to serve the incarcerated and their loved ones. I thank God and you all for the opportunity. May the peace of God embrace them and us. Amen