T’ruah’s new Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration

Jewish Protest Signs

T’ruah has just published a Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration.  I’ve been waiting for months for it to be available–171 pages of facts, figures, stories, strategies, and inspiration for Jewish communities who want to help end American mass incarceration.  There are 2.3 million people behind bars in American jails and prisons tonight–2 million more than when I was born.  Treating people like throwaways tramples on so much of what Judaism teaches; it is inconsistent with recognition of godliness in family, neighbors, and strangers alike.  I’m really happy to have this resource to help communities like ours think about whether we can be part of the opposition.

For each topic the handbook covers–and there are dozens, including Poverty and Mass Incarceration, School to Prison Pipeline, Prison Labor, Solitary Confinement, Barriers to Reentry–it offers statistics and background, relevant Jewish texts, and contemporary accounts.  It includes materials for text study (I’m really proud that one of the study units is based on a d’var torah about Jonah I wrote for AARC’s Yom Kippur service in 2013).  And it has suggestions for Jewish community action.

I was particularly moved by some of the advice the handbook give rabbis:

Here are some of the ways in which we can draw on our Jewish wisdom to help change the narrative:

  • Move the conversation away from “how do we punish” to “how can we facilitate teshuvah?”
  • Break down the false dichotomy between victims and perpetrators; acknowledge that all of us may be both at one point or another in our lives, and that society must protect all of us.
  • Have honest conversations within your communities, in interfaith groups, and in public about race and its impact on incarceration.
  • If you’ve visited congregants or other people in prison, or served as a prison chaplain, talk about these experiences (without sacrificing confidentiality, of course). Help your community see incarcerated individuals as creations b’tzelem Elohim—in the divine image.
  • Talk about the ways in which other societal issues that your community may encounter through your social action work can have an impact on imprisonment, or can be affected by imprisonment.
  • Speak openly about mental illness. This will both make your community feel safer for members living with mental illness or dealing with mentally ill family members, and will also allow for conversations about the relationship between mental illness and incarceration.
  • Offer a prophetic vision of what could be. Don’t let people wallow in despair—show a vision of how we can move forward.

I’ve been struggling, a little bit, with how to join up my own personal commitment to criminal justice reform with my Jewishness. I feel better equipped now that I’ve read this handbook, so I wanted to share it with my community.