JCRC Seminar Considers Mass Incarceration

In a mosaic of rectangular boxes, eight people are sitting.
Jewish lawyers, activists and previously-incarcerated individuals, moderated by Jewish criminal defense and civil rights lawyer Laurie Jubelirer, conducted JCRC’s “Ending Mass Incarceration: A Jewish Perspective” webinar. | Screenshot by Sasha Rogelberg

Area Jewish leaders are urging community members to take a stance against mass incarceration, arguing that long prison sentences and a lack of resources for those incarcerated go against Jewish values.

On Oct. 21, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia hosted “Ending Mass Incarceration: A Jewish Perspective,” a webinar addressing the systemic shortcomings of the criminal justice system.

A handful of Jewish lawyers, activists and previously incarcerated individuals, moderated by Jewish criminal defense and civil rights lawyer Laurie Jubelirer, agreed that changes need to be made to the prison system, both nationally and locally.

The foundation of the Jewish argument against mass incarceration is that prisons do not have a precedent in the Torah, according to Rabbi Joshua Runyan, a lawyer with Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads LLP and former editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent.

“The idea of having a prison where we put lots of convicted criminals inside is not the ideal,” Runyan said. “That’s not the world that the Torah certainly envisioned.”

However, Runyan said that Jewish sages made exceptions to the Torah’s lack of commentary on imprisonment: If someone posed a threat to the rest of their community, being separated from them through incarceration was permissible.

Today, panelists argued, prisons serve to degrade, rather than reform, running counter to Jewish values, which prohibit unjust retribution.

“We need to understand that regardless of the reason they’re there, or whatever we think the reason for prisons is, there’s a baseline of dignity and humanity that should be afforded to all humans, period, end of conversation,” said Noah Barth, prison monitoring director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

Carol Harris-Shapiro, associate professor of instruction at Temple University, called into question the purpose of prisons in today’s society, saying that if they were intended as a place of rehabilitation, they were failing.

Prisons are supposed to provide sufficient medical care and education, preparing those incarcerated to have a second chance on the outside. This isn’t the case, Harris-Shapiro said.

According to the Literacy Project, up to 60% of those incarcerated cannot read above a fourth-grade level. Some incarcerated individuals earn as little as 25 cents per hour at their jobs, but have to pay a $5 medical copay.

However, according to Harris-Shapiro, some believe that prisons should be a place of punishment, justifying prisons’ lack of resources. Moreover, prisons make up a growing industry that includes janitorial and maintenance staff, guards, security and food services.

“Industry revenue has increased at an annualized rate of 4.4% to $9.3 billion over the five years to 2021,” she said.

Because it’s profitable, prisons have good incentive to continue mass incarceration.

“If you have prisons for profit, you want more inmates, not fewer,” Harris-Shapiro said. “Recidivism actually allows you to keep your businesses flourishing.”

Recidivism rates in the U.S. are high: 66% of those previously incarcerated are arrested within three years of their release; 50% are reincarcerated, Harris-Shapiro said.

Two men in green and camo lead an incarcerated individual in orange down a long, wide sidewalk surrounded by tall, chainlink fence.
Incarcerated men from SCI-Graterford being transferred to SCI-Phoenix in 2016.
| Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

These amount to lots of incarcerated people, said Bob Lankin, attorney and coordinator of the Jewish Congregation at State Correctional Institution-Phoenix in Montgomery County.

“2.1 million people in the United States and around 77,000 in Pennsylvania” are incarcerated, according to Lankin.

And though Pennsylvania has no for-profit private state prisons, they are a large employer, particularly in rural areas, where other industries, such as coal mining, are waning.

Defunding state prisons in smaller towns, where many are employed, isn’t a compelling option to those with few job options, according to Matt Engler, who was formerly incarcerated at SCI-Graterford, now SCI Phoenix.  These jobs would come at the expense of reintroducing people who had potentially committed violent crimes back into the community.

“Once you go to defund one of those prisons, a young lady, or whomever, in that town — who has really no other source of income — goes on welfare,” he said. “That’s a hard sell … That’s a huge, huge problem that we’re up against here.”

With little to be done on an individual level to improve prison conditions and the criminal justice system, panelists called on community members to rehumanize those incarcerated.

Jeffrey Abramowitz, executive director of Reentry Services for JEVS Human Services and program director of Looking Forward Philadelphia, who was formerly incarcerated, felt alienated from his community after being indicted for a financial crime, disconnecting him from Judaism.

“For some reason, the second that indictment came down … my synagogue doors closed and our community closed,” Abramowitz said.

Abramowitz admitted to making mistakes and learning from them, but wants Jewish community members to see past the stigma associated with being incarcerated.

“Quite frankly, we need to have this discussion in this group and in every synagogue in our country,” he said. “We need to open our doors a little bit wider to the men and women that are really challenged by the criminal justice system.”

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