By: Andrew Scheer, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Student and Army Chaplain trainee
In prison, there are no Orthodox Jews. Neither are there Conservative nor Reform Jews. There are no Hasidim, Misnagdim, Sephardim or Ashkenazim. What there are, are people with a Jewish meal card. For all of the difficulties I witnessed inmates encounter, I was overwhelmed by the tremendous sense of egalitarianism and yachdut pervading the gym synagogue where I led High Holiday services this year at Rikers Island.
To give you a sense of what I mean, I’ll tell you about the first day of Rosh HaShana when my friend Josh was blowing shofar and we’d asked everyone to gather close as the guards kept a suspicious watch. Josh started out strong but like every ba’al tokea does, started fumbling halfway through the 20th blast or so. Exasperated, he pulled the shofar away from his face, bright red, flustered and frustrated. In other synagogues I’d heard shofar, ‘on the outside,’ this is when the hushed murmuring would no doubt begin. “What’s wrong? Why did he stop? Doesn’t he know how long these services are?” But in Rikers, among the 40 or so prisoners assembled, all I heard was a shout, 2 or 3 rows back, “Rabbi Josh, You got this!”
Josh stood up straight, licked his lips, pulled the shofar close and confidently blew the remaining blasts. That moment of encouragement, those three words, ‘you got this,’ encapsulate the tremendous camaraderie I felt among the inmates at Rikers Island.
Before I stepped foot on the island, I was apprehensive. My inner dialogue was torn. ‘Will the inmates listen to me? I’m 26, what do I have to teach about life, and during a time of deep introspection all the more so! Will my service be too traditional, not traditional enough, too much Hebrew, not enough English?’ I’m going to change gears for a second and speak to where I think these feelings of doubt and anxiety come from and why I felt so unprepared to visit, let alone lead a service in a correctional facility.
We live in a throwaway society. I read an article recently saying that most of what populates our landfills is packaging. We don’t buy bunch spinach anymore, it comes out of a plastic bag. When we buy a soda from a convenience store, it comes in a plastic bag which we use for the 10 seconds it takes to get from the store to the corner where we throw it out. That bag was designed, manufactured, processed, shipped, paid for and provided to us gratis to be used for a fleeting moment, at which point it ceases to become useful and becomes garbage. Garbage that collects…somewhere else. The instant that bag is tossed into the trash receptacle, our relationship with it ends. To us, it is as if it simply disappears.
But of course, it does not. Another human being comes in a truck to pick it up, then drop it off on a barge to be taken to a landfill. Half a dozen more people may interact with that bag before it finds its ultimate resting place. But we don’t see that, and we don’t care. And why should we? After all it’s only a plastic bag. However, the notion that we as a society allow items with which we were attached albeit ephemerally, to ‘collect’ somewhere influences our attitude not only towards inanimate objects but also towards our actions and ultimately human beings. One of these places where people simply ‘collect’ is jail.
Before I committed to leading high holiday services at Rikers Island, I thought about it and realized I knew absolutely nothing about the place or the people who inhabit that imprisoned island. This despite Rikers Island’s use as a jail for over 100 years before I was born, with an inmate population of over 10,000 in addition to guards and staff and an annual budget of over $800 million. And yet, despite being a lifelong New Yorker I never stopped to consider what goes on there. The criminal justice system is an anomaly in that we as a society pay a high price for it, but if it works properly, the hope is we go through our whole lives never having interacted with it. The hope is that criminal justice is invisible. It is a bill for living in a city where it is safe to walk down the street. But much like the plastic bag sitting in a landfill, there are hidden costs which we at our most ignorant moments don’t see, or most troubling moments choose to ignore.
Over the high holidays this year, I was afforded an opportunity very few people ever get. A chance to glimpse over the barbed wire to see how a correctional facility operates, an overnight guest of the New York City Department of Corrections. I was neither incarcerated nor tasked with guard duty. What I witnessed at times shocked me, like the display of shivs and worn in riot gear, and at times inspired me, like the inmate whose Yom Kippur silent amidah, devotional prayer, lasted well into the chazzan’s repetition as he struggled to read every word of the Hebrew text and afterwards the English translation.
The strongest takeaway from my time in prison remains that folks who are incarcerated are not a class of citizens for whom this was their only possible destiny. Who here in this room hasn’t committed some indiscretion that we’ve ‘gotten away with,’ never having to pay the consequences of. I’m reminded of a young woman I met, a Russian émigré who moved to America with her parents when she was 7. By all measures, she is a bright girl and she was on a path towards a good life, a normal life, the one we all enjoy, when at the age of 15, the van she and her parents were riding in broke down on the side of the highway. She got out a little too quickly and her mother, realizing she was in danger, jumped out of the car, pushed her daughter out of the way and took the full impact of a vehicle at highway speed, perishing. When this woman who was sitting in front of me came to in the hospital, she didn’t even know her mother had died. She’d blacked out from the force of her mother’s push and still suffers brain damage to this day. Without a strong female role model at home, and with a father who took to alcohol and loose women following the death of his wife, this woman’s life descended into a deep spiral of which she has not yet reached the bottom of. Chas v’shalom, but this could’ve happened to anyone sitting here today. One minute your prospects couldn’t be brighter, the next it’s as if all the windows and doors of opportunity are locked up, far away from you, forever.
But then, what is the goal of incarceration? What purpose does it serve society and how much does society owe to those who we choose to imprison? On the one hand, I hear the argument as expressed by Warden Norton in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ that the only things the public are willing to pay more for in prisons are bars and guards. Why should we allocate more resources to people who have convicted of crimes against others and the state while the purse strings for education and the like are being pulled back more than ever? However, on the other hand, it benefits us to think about the long term consequences of sacrificing programs that aid in prisoners’ reentry back into society and prevent recidivism, ultimately saving the state’s funds.
I’ll give you one last quick story. Josh and I were mere hours away from leaving Rikers Island after Rosh HaShana when we decided to invite any interested inmates to our room to celebrate the end of the holiday and speak to them about what life is like ‘on the inside.’ One of the most shocking things I heard, and I should mention that this man is a 32nd generation descendent of the Rambam, was the standard procedure for release after an inmate serves his or her time. He was placed on the only bus out of Rikers, the Q100, with a $4.50 metrocard and whatever money was left in his account from the Rikers commissary. To someone who has family that cares about them or resources on which to live, they should be fine. But for the vast majority of the inmate population, who use public defenders at their trials and are by many measures some of the most indigent and vulnerable people in our society, they have nowhere to go and no one who cares about them. And then we’re shocked when they reoffend.
I read an article in The Economist dated May 19th 2012 which quotes California’s prison boss, Matthew Cate as saying “America has seen prison as a place to throw people away,” says Mr Cate, whereas “Europeans see prison as place people will return from.” Let’s change that. Let’s change the fact that America contains 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of its prisoners. There’s a line at the end of Doctor Zhivago that I feel is poignant to the issue we are all here to discuss today. “One day she went away and didn’t come back. She died or vanished somewhere, in one of the Labor Camps. A nameless number on a list that was afterwards mislaid. That was quite common in those days.” Let’s get together and make sure that when somebody is incarcerated, they do not merely vanish, that they are not nameless, they are not forgotten and that we have the responsibility to look after each other, not only when it’s easy, but especially when it’s difficult.