Pandemic in the petri dish that is prison

Pandemic in the petri dish that is prison

We have a moral imperative to care for this vulnerable population that can only imagine the freedom that recognizes their sacred worth as individuals and as human beings

Illustrative. An NYPD vehicles sits outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, February 4, 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Illustrative. An NYPD vehicles sits outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, February 4, 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This year’s Passover was different for all of us, but I doubt most of us can imagine Passover in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alone in cells, no Zoom seder, no Haggadot, no social distance, and in prisons where the rate of infection is staggeringly high, no hope to remain safe from the rampant spread of the coronavirus.

There are over two million people currently living behind bars in America. From Rikers Island in NYC[1], to Cook County Jail in Chicago[2], jails and prisons across the United States have some of the highest infection rates of COVID-19 in the world.

Communal gathering and communal redemption are central to the story and experience of Passover. We are proud that one of the newest congregations in our Union for Reform Judaism community is located in the Northern State Prison (NSP) in Newark, New Jersey and is known as “NSP Chief Cornerstone House of Freedom.” Before the onslaught of coronavirus this new congregation, one of several URJ congregations located in correctional facilities, was a veritable lifeline of connection and meaning for its members. But during the weeks before and during Passover, our members were cut off from each other and the fortifying power of Jewish rituals and community.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the congregation both of us have been privileged to know, one that Rabbi Hilly Haber has been helping lead.

Behind barbed wire fences and thick concrete doors, 15 men clad all in beige slowly trickle into the chapel. With handshakes and smiles we greet one another. “Shabbat Shalom!” “I am in need of Shabbat this week!”

Some of these men have spent their entire adult lives behind bars. Some were born into Jewish families and others gravitated toward Jewish practice and identity later in life. Together, these men have built a community grounded in liberation and freedom. They have imagined and realized for themselves a space that offers a counter message to the one they receive with every frisk and cavity search: here, each person possesses infinite sacred worth and dignity, each person is part of a whole.

The Book of Proverbs instructs us to “speak up for those who cannot speak…to raise our voices on behalf of the vulnerable and downtrodden.”[3] The individuals who make up America’s prison population are isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless.

And so, we raise our voices on behalf of our URJ congregants in prisons and those of every faith and no faith in correctional facilities who are at great risk. Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 should receive the care they need and deserve, without delay and without cost. That includes moving incarcerated people to healthcare facilities intended and able to provide necessary care and treatment. Staff must be provided with necessary PPE. And while state leaders have an essential role to play ensuring the health of inmates and staff, Congress must also ensure adequate funding is available to meet these moral and human obligations.

In the face of institutions that elevate punishment and profit over human dignity and atonement, these men and women have built college programs, earned Bachelor’s degrees, founded religious communities, and raised up generations of transformational community leaders.

We are proud that Central Synagogue has taken the lead in New York offering Shabbat services on Rikers Island and lobbying efforts to reinstate state funding for college programming in New York prisons. At the start of this pandemic, Central Synagogue co-wrote and circulated an interfaith sign-on letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo addressing conditions in New York’s jails and prisons. In California, our activists called on Governor Gavin Newsom to protect prison inmates, staff and the public, including by reducing the state prison population and providing for the safe reentry of those who are released. Other URJ congregations are doing similar work in their own states. In so doing they have heard the voices and seen the brilliant power of those incarcerated, those who have been left vulnerable and voiceless in the midst of a global crisis.

The men of NSP CCHOF are us and we are them. When they applied to become an official URJ Congregation, they wrote: “No matter how far, how diverse, how dispersed, every Jew remains part of one indivisible whole.” We and they and every sacred human soul are part of one indivisible whole, one human family in which dignity is not a privilege but a divinely ordained right. That is why we must all cry out and raise our voices now for the voiceless: the detained, the imprisoned, the families who cannot shelter in place together.



[3] Proverbs 31:8-9

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, leading the largest, most diverse movement in Jewish life.

Rabbi Hilly Haber is director of social justice organizing and education at Central Synagogue in Manhattan and a rabbinic chaplain at Northern State Prison in Newark, New Jersey.

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