Not in Our Name

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As Jews we are taught to pursue justice. Leviticus 19 tells us that we may not stand by while the blood of another is being shed. According to the Talmud we are obligated to come to the aid of one whose body and health are threatened, even if we need to expend our own personal resources in doing so.

For those of us living in comfort and safety here in Baltimore, and for me personally, the knowledge of what is being done in our names, by our own government and public officials, compels action on behalf of people being denied basic human rights.

The facts described below were brought to my attention and that of more than 50 others who attended a lively public forum on Solitary Confinement in Maryland at Beth Am Synagogue on June 7. Many in the predominantly white and Jewish audience expressed shock at what we heard. In contrast, African-Americans in attendance appeared surprised at what we didn’t know.

Interfaith Action for Human Rights organized the Solitary Confinement event. Executive director Rabbi Chuck Feinberg introduced the co-sponsors, Jews United for Justice along with the social action committees of six Baltimore-area synagogues — Baltimore Hebrew, Beth Am, Bolton Street Synagogue, Chevrei Tzedek, Chizuk Amuno and Kol HaLev. Presenters included Toni Holness, public policy director of ACLU of Maryland; Lauren Young, director of litigation at Disability Rights Maryland; and Marcus Lilly, a returning citizen who experienced more than 700 days’ solitary confinement. I highlight the speakers’ main points and takeaways:

  • The use of solitary confinement in Maryland prisons is about twice the national average. In fiscal year 2017, nearly 50 percent of all prisoners spent time in segregation.
  • Prisoners remain confined for 22 or more hours a day in cells no larger than an average parking space.
  • There is no mandatory limit on total time in segregation and no meaningful review process.
  • Confinement for more than 15 days causes severe psychological and emotional harm. Despite this finding, the use of solitary confinement for hundreds of days at a time occurs repeatedly in Maryland. There are cases of individuals who have been confined for up to six years.
  • Individuals with physical and developmental disabilities as well as those suffering from mental illness are regularly placed in solitary confinement for extended periods and denied adequate treatment.
  • Pregnant women are placed in solitary confinement at the very time when they are most vulnerable and have the greatest needs.
  • These practices violate the standards of the American Correctional Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Public Health Association and the U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Solitary confinement is often imposed for arbitrary and capricious reasons, including “disrespect,” “threatening language,” “horseplay” and “acting out,” including an episode associated with a mental health crisis.
  • The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services argues that this practice protects safety and security in the prison. Experience from multiple other jurisdictions demonstrates that this is untrue.

In brief, solitary confinement is a cruel, debilitating and primitive form of punishment. It can destroy lives, enhances the likelihood of prisoners engaging in criminal behavior, and places the public in greater danger upon their return to the community.

During my term as a synagogue president, Baltimore was shaken by the death of Freddie Gray and uprising that followed in spring 2015, and again in June by the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. These events and others that have occurred over the last three years have shocked my conscience. Solitary confinement is one issue among many that require attention, and I am just one person, working in partnership with others in my congregation and elsewhere, including the organizations cited above. But if I take our teachings seriously, then I must act once my eyes are opened and use whatever small influence I have in order to make a difference. I am grateful that there are Jewish organizations that are ready and willing to take on this responsibility.

What is being perpetrated in our names against our fellow citizens is an affront to Jewish values and should be regarded as an outrage by every thinking citizen. It can continue only as long as our elected representatives allow it to continue without meaningful oversight. I ask those reading these words to contact candidates running for state elective office in your district. Insist that they pledge to support a bill in the next legislative session ensuring accountability and placing mandatory limits on the use of solitary confinement in Maryland prisons.

Andrew Miller is chair of the Chizuk Amuno Congregation Social Justice Advocacy Committee and a past president of Chizuk Amuno.

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