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Hearing on Solitary Confinement (Rabbis), Senate Judiciary Subcommittee CCRHR, 2012

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Testimony of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Director of North American Programs
Rabbis for Human Rights-North America
Before the Senate Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
Hearing on Reassessing Solitary Confinement
June 19, 2012
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to submit
testimony on behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America concerning the use of
solitary confinement in our nation’s federal prisons, jails, and detention centers. It is
reassuring that a growing number of states across the nation are reassessing this practice
and implementing policies to limit its use. We are grateful for the Subcommittee’s timely
review of the federal system’s use of isolation today.
Rabbis for Human Rights-North America is an organization of rabbis from all streams of
Judaism that acts on the Jewish imperative to respect and protect the human rights of all
people. Grounded in Torah and our Jewish historical experience and guided by the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we advocate for human rights in Israel and North
America. We were founding members of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture,
and our mission to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement in the United States is an
outgrown of our anti-torture campaign.
At the beginning of Genesis, we read: “It is not good for a human to be alone.” (Genesis
2:18) From the very beginning of human existence, there is an awareness that people are
social creatures, designed to be in community with others. Genesis also teaches us that
every human being – no matter what their behavior might be – is created in God’s image,
b’tzelem elohim. Therefore, to intentionally torture, humiliate or degrade another human is
akin to degrading the divine.
If we take our belief in God seriously as people of faith, then we cannot be silent when more
than 80,000 people every day in the United States are subject to degrading conditions of
incarceration. As Gabriel Reyes (a prisoner and former hunger striker at the Pelican Bay State
Prison) recently described to the San Francisco Chronicle: “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.”
There is an increasing consensus that prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners leads to
profound and often irreversible psychological impairments without making anyone safer
(whether other prisoners, guards, or the public at large), and that it constitutes a form of
torture. By ignoring the needs of prisoners for normal human contact and basic standards
of living, it does not treat the incarcerated as they are created in the divine image. Longterm solitary confinement goes against the values of humane punishment that Judaism
holds dear. The Torah prohibits degrading and excessive punishment by saying, “lest your
brother be degraded before your eyes.” (Deuteronomy 25:3)

Jewish tradition also emphasizes the need for human companionship. Commenting on the
death of a man who had outlived his friends and study partners, the rabbis of the Talmud
commented: “Either companionship or death.” (Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 23a) Many of
those held in prolonged solitary confinement have been deprived of community for months or
even years. The impact on their physical and mental health may be irreversible.
We believe that the moral voice of rabbis is critical in ending this endemic violation of
human rights. Rabbis play a crucial role in teaching our communities about the importance
of restorative justice, rather than punitive and damaging punishment. In our system of
justice, being sent to prison is the punishment, not horrific conditions while in prison, of
which isolation is the extreme end. As a nation, our goal for those incarcerated should be
rehabilitation and repentance. Jewish tradition teaches us that the gates of repentance are
always open, and that God suffers over the pain of sinners and righteous alike.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America
believes strongly that the United States should do everything it can to reverse our nation’s
harmful and expensive reliance on solitary confinement. We have a moral obligation to
uphold the dignity and the mental health of those currently incarcerated. To that end, we
would strongly support your leadership in sponsoring legislation that would limit the use
and length of solitary confinement. We implore you to immediately take steps to end the
use of prolonged solitary confinement. Your hearing today is a very important effort in
doing that, and we thank you for the opportunity to contribute to it.