Teshuvah on the Inside: Jewish Alternatives to the Prison System

A housing unit at State Correctional Institution-Phoenix | Courtesy of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Frank Jordan has wanted to visit his sick friend for a while now. 

Jordan has been incarcerated for 36 years on homicide charges and is living at State Correctional Institution-Phoenix in Montgomery County.

Jordan hasn’t been able to see his friend, who’s being treated at a hospital on the outside, and he isn’t sure when he’ll see him next. He is hoping the prison’s part-time rabbi will give him an update, but things seem grim: “We don’t think he’s going to make it very well.”

Jordan’s friend has dementia; he’s the oldest of the men in SCI-Phoenix’s Jewish congregation, a group of 12-or-so Jewish men who — under non-pandemic circumstances — come together to pray and schmooze weekly.

Medical inconveniences and confusions aren’t uncommon in prisons, says Bob Lankin, a lawyer-turned-financial adviser and volunteer with SCI-Phoenix’s congregation.

Another man in the congregation was sent from SCI-Phoenix to a hospital in Altoona for a surgery. According to Lankin, visitors and family were not permitted to visit — a prison policy to curtail potential escapes. The prison didn’t inform the patient’s family of the surgery time.

“That’s wrong,” Lankin said. As a lawyer, but moreover as a Jewish person, Lankin said he objects to aspects of the carceral system.

The poor treatment of those incarcerated persists in many areas of prison culture, Lankin said. State prisons banned “solitary confinement” and replaced it with “restrictive housing” or “disciplinary custody,” which Lankin said is virtually the same thing. (Jordan still uneasily refers to it as “the hole.”) The Department of Justice reports that up to 20% of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons are kept in restrictive housing at some point in their sentence.

Though Lankin has never witnessed it firsthand, he’s had men on the inside tell him about times guards have harassed or punched them. 

But what Lankin takes greatest issue with is the sentencing lengths of those incarcerated in the U.S., which surpasses those in all of Western Europe. More than 50,000 incarcerated people in the U.S. are serving life sentences without parole; Jordan is one of them.

Lankin is among a group of lawyers and activists that believes these long sentences become retribution.

Bob Lankin is a lawyer-turned-financial adviser who volunteers with the SCI-Phoenix Jewish congregation. | Courtesy of Bob Lankin

“You don’t need to have a sentence that long to discourage people from committing crimes,” Lankin said. “After a while, it’s just plain punishment, and excessive punishment is against the Jewish religion.”

Criminal defense and civil rights lawyer Laurie Jubelirer, who is Jewish, agrees; she believes that those incarcerated deserve second chances.

“We’re all human beings,” Jubelirer said. “Why should we be defined by our worst behavior?”

Like other rabbis who work with those incarcerated, Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel posits that these long sentences are inconsistent with the Jewish New Year’s promise of new beginnings.

“As human beings, we make mistakes,” Vogel said. “We know that we continue to grow.”

Vogel is the executive director at the Northeast Regional Headquarters of the Aleph Institute, an organization that provides resources for incarcerated Jews and Jews readjusting to life on the outside. He points out the double standard of punishing some individuals, while all individuals err.

“Those in the prison system — they suffer tremendously; some of their wrongdoings are exposed,” he said. “We, as human beings, we all have skeletons in our closet.”

Lankin and Vogel both affirm the necessity of prisons. However Vogel agrees with Lankin that incarceration can move into the slippery slope of retribution: Those incarcerated should be treated “as a child who is punished by their parents,” but never punished out of anger.

Rilka Spieler disagrees. She is a member of Matir Asurim, a new Philadelphia-based network of chaplains, activists and those “directly impacted by incarceration,” working to provide resources to those incarcerated.

Spieler doesn’t believe that prisons serve to reform a population at all. Following the words of political activist and abolitionist Angela Davis, Spieler believes that “prisons disappear people.”

“If you put somebody in a prison, especially far away from their family, or away from their community, that’s it,” Spieler said. 

Mirroring the thoughts of Rabbis David Bauer and Elyse Wechterman — both chaplains at SCI-Phoenix — Spieler thinks that removing an individual from their community denies them the opportunity to apologize to those they’ve hurt.

Laurie Jubelirer is a criminal justice and civil rights lawyer. | Courtesy of Laurie Jubelirer

“The way to have people atone is to actually be in community and be in relationship with the people they’re working to make amends with,” Spieler said. “If you remove people from their community, then they aren’t given that opportunity.”

Jubelirer and Lankin advocate for restorative justice, the coming together of the victim and perpetrator to share their experiences and come away with a deeper mutual understanding, as a systemic change to isolating those who’ve committed a crime in prisons.

Though Jordan did not speak about the circumstances that led to his arrest and conviction, he was certain about being given the opportunity to meet with those he hurt: “I would still apologize to those people, if given the choice, for hurting them, their loved ones and their family.” 

Restorative justice is just the beginning of imagining a world where prisons could be obsolete, Spieler said. Whatever changes are made to the system, Spieler believes there needs to be a dialogue between the perpetrator and those they’ve harmed — a major tenet of teshuvah.

For those on the inside, however, who have been denied these opportunities, complete teshuvah can still be done and has been done, Wechterman said.

“The way that we seek forgiveness is by recognizing that what we’ve done is wrong; owning our responsibility for it; learning how we can do better,” Wechterman said. “And then, when given the opportunity and confronted with the same choices, not doing the same thing — making better choices.”

Last week, Jordan was playing cards with another man in the day room area of his unit. Jordan said the man said something to disrespect him, and Jordan started to raise his voice a little. But he didn’t cause a scene and chose not to pick a fight. The two of them laughed it off and continued playing cards a few minutes later.

“I can be a mean person if I choose,” Jordan said, but said he makes the choice not to be.

“It’s not worth it in here,” Jordan said. “It’s not worth it out there, either.”

srogelberg@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0741



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here