Eighty thousand prisoners face solitary confinement on any given day in the United States. Many remain alone and in their cells for 23 hours a day for months or even years without meaningful human contact. Once a hardly employed practice, the advent of super-max prisons and the explosion of the prison population have turned solitary confinement into a regular form of discipline in many American prisons.
According to Uri L'Tzedek and Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, this form of incarceration is legalized torture and must be stopped in US jails. Together with religious leaders from across the nation, the Jewish organizations participated in a 23 hour fast on June 19, in solidarity with prison hunger strikers and to draw attention to the plight of those facing long term sentences in solitary cells.
“The rabbis teach us that one important way to inspire mercy from above is to take fasts upon ourselves,” explained Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, Founder and President of Uri L' Tzedek, “We do so with trepidation and caution to remember the frailty of the human condition and to stand in solidarity with all who are suffering.”
The fast also coincided with the first ever Congressional hearings on solitary confinement, which were held in Washington on Tuesday. Testifying to the Sub-Committee on Constitution, Human Rights and Civil Rights, Rabbi Rachel Kahn Troster, Director of North American Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights, provided a Jewish perspective on the need to end solitary confinement.
“Jewish tradition teaches us that the gates of repentance are always open, and that God suffers over the pain of sinners and righteous alike,” Rabbi Troster said. Calling solitary confinement both “expensive” and “harmful,” she told the committee, “We have a moral obligation to uphold the dignity and the mental health of those currently incarcerated.”
Rabbi Troster's testimony also included the words of a hunger striker currently enduring long term solitary confinement: “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.”