It is not good for a human to be alone.
Either companionship or death.
—Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23a
T’ruah organizes rabbis and their communities to end prolonged solitary confinement, defined as fifteen days or more of isolation. This work has included organizing rabbis:
- in California to advocate successfully for the passage of SB1143, which ended long-term solitary confinement of juveniles.
- in New Jersey to support S51, which would end long-term solitary confinement except in extreme cases and eliminate the practice for vulnerable populations including juveniles, pregnant inmates, and the elderly. The bill passed the legislature and was vetoed by Governor Christie.
Every day, some 80,000-100,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement (also know as “administrative segregation”, among other terms) in American prisons, more than in any other country in the world. Prisoners in solitary typically spend 23 hours a day locked in small, often windowless, cells with a solid steel door, bed, toilet, and sink. They lack opportunities for significant social interaction. Meals are delivered through small slots in the cell doors, and the privileges of being spoken to and touched by prison guards when unshackled are initially denied to prisoners in solitary, and can only be earned back after a significant period of time. Phone calls and visits by family and loved ones are usually prohibited. A few times a week, prisoners are let out for showers and solitary exercise in an extremely small, enclosed space, which is often indoors.
The Torah did not give permission to place someone in a prison that is cramped, for prisons are only for keeping a person to ensure he doesn’t escape. . . Even more so, we should not place him in a prison that’s soiled, where he will not be able to study Torah or to keep the mitzvot. For even if the Torah gave us permission, since even though he has sinned and must be imprisoned in a prison, he has not ceased to be a Jew.
—Rabbi Chaim Palagi, Choshen Mishpat 5
Many prisoners in solitary confinement are kept there for years, sometimes even for decades. Many are arrested and imprisoned for a low-level drug offense but get put in segregation for non-violent infractions of prison rules, often due to mental health issues. Research by the American Civil Liberties Union has shown that between one-fifth and two-thirds of prisoners held in solitary have a serious mental illness that was diagnosed or manifested before isolation. For mentally ill prisoners, prolonged solitary confinement can be a living horror; the restricted activities and interactions can exacerbate their illness and immeasurably increase their pain and suffering. Many of those who enter solitary confinement mentally unimpaired develop severe mental illness after even just a few weeks in isolation.
Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort—for years on end. It is a living tomb.
—Gabriel Reyes, Pelican Bay State Prison inmate
Many prisoners are released directly from solitary back to the community, unprepared for normal social interaction. With no rehabilitative or educational programming, many end up back in prison after a short time due to panic attacks and other symptoms of mental illness, which are often developed in solitary due to the lack of social interaction.
We have a moral obligation to uphold the dignity and mental health of those currently incarcerated, whatever their crime. By decreasing the overuse of solitary confinement, the U.S. can save money, reduce prison violence, and most importantly, uphold the human rights that all human beings are guaranteed by the Constitution, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Jewish law.