This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.
“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders …” So begins Pirke Avot,”Ethics of the Sages,” the ancient collection of rabbinic wisdom that many Jews are reading now, the period between Passover and Shavuot, which corresponds to the mythic time covering the journey from Egyptian slavery to the Sinai revelation of how to live as a free people. When I had the opportunity to visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in the Philadelphia jail system a few sayings from Pirke Avot came to mind.
“Find yourself a teacher” (Pirke Avot 1.6, 16)
I had the opportunity to visit the jail, along with a group of other participants in RRC’s Crime and Punishment class, thanks to two remarkable teachers: Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Director of RRC’s Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives, who organized the class, and Chaplain Phyllis Taylor, who tirelessly served inmates and staff in CFCF for 18 years and has helped countless people to learn about the criminal justice system with great depth and compassion.
“Receive everyone with a cheerful face.” (1:15)
At CFCF Chaplain Taylor wisely left most of the teaching to the correctional officers (COs), but she did tell us that it is her practice to greet every inmate with a warm smile and a wave. As we were walking back to our cars on the outside of the razor-wire topped fence I heard a sound I mistook for a crackling microphone but Phyllis knew it was the sound of inmates tapping on their windows to get her attention, perhaps just to make some contact with the outside world, and she responded by turning to wave at the windows even though nobody could be seen through the one-way glass. I followed Phyllis’s advice and example and hopefully brought inmates at least a confirmation that someone sees them as a human being, which is a feeling that might be all too rare as an inmate. In the process, I realized that part of the wisdom of this teaching is that it can catalyze a human connection with others, which is especially important when the stigmatized differences and between the people meeting might make such a connection unlikely. In my case, that of a white free person encountering black incarcerated people, I very much needed this catalyst.
“Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14)
So this is not a saying from Pirke Avot, but the rabbis made the broad implications of this biblical statement explicit—it applies to any situation in which a person is put in a situation that makes some harmful failure unavoidable. Many of the conditions at CFCF, if just taken alone, would amount to placing a stumbling block before the blind—e.g., overcrowding, isolation from the outside world, inadequate opportunities for education/work/religious expression, untreated mental illness, vulnerability to exploitation at the hands of other inmates, lack of hope in the future, dehumanizing bureaucratic treatment—but the combination of them seem to make it inevitable that inmates will harm themselves, each other and correctional officers. Phyllis shared her opinion that real rehabilitation is extremely rare in such circumstances. The correctional officer who led our tour said that the rare inmate who “gets it” and commits to changing his conduct does so because jail is so awful and he never wants to have to return. (Of course, given the challenges of reentry, even firmly committing to change one’s is no guarantee against recidivism.)
“Don’t judge your fellow until you reach his place.” (2.5)
The officer who led our tour of CFCF started out by welcoming us to referred to “the crown jewel” of the Philadelphia Prison System. This expression made members of our group uncomfortable—how can any jail be a “crown jewel”?!—but it made more sense over time. Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility is named in honor of Warden Patrick N. Curran and Deputy Warden Robert F. Fromhold, who were murdered at Holmesburg Prison on May 31, 1973. While these are the only two officers knows to have been killed on duty in the Philadelphia Prison System, the threat of violence still looms over the place. I asked the officer who led our tour if seeing the same inmates coming into jail again and again over the years makes him feel his work isn’t worthwhile and he said no, the only way he measures success is by whether every member of his team makes it out of the jail at the end of the day in the same condition in which they came in. Chaplain Taylor told us that while some of the rules governing the jail may seem extreme—e.g., the extensive intrusive searches entering inmates undergo and the prohibition against normal toothbrushes—they are responses to tragedies involving harm suffered by inmates and/or COs. Because of CFCF’s particular design, which makes the mass movement of inmates unnecessary, and the fact that it is air-conditioned, which tempers from igniting in Philly’s steamy summer weather, CFCF is known as the safest jail for COs.
Given the harmful but understandable internal logic that appears to govern places like CFCF, it seems incredibly unlikely that large scale positive change, moving away from Egypt and towards Sinai, will originate from within it. In order for change to happen, those of us on the “outside” will need to become informed and take sustained action. The starting point, though, is to truly care about people who are incarcerated.
I find a pathway to this starting point in the words of Rabbi Hananiah ben Gamliel. According to the Torah, there is a limit placed on how many lashes a guilty person can receive “lest, being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes” (Deut. 25:3). Rabbi Hananiah said, “Behold, since he [the criminal] has been flogged, he is like your brother” (b Megillah 7b). This is how we should regard those who have been punished in the criminal justice system created by our elected officials and funded with our taxes.