JEWISH PEOPLE all over the world recently celebrated Rosh Hashanah, our New Year. As a rabbi, this is a time where I support my community in making teshuvah – a process of repentance and self-transformation that serves as a kind of annual accounting and restoration to the best, holiest versions of ourselves. Judaism teaches that we should not be defined by our mistakes, and provides us with an annual opportunity to make amends and begin again, remembering that we are all reflections of the image of God.
The process of teshuvah, critically, happens in relationship with each other. It’s our shared belief in this and other tenets of Judaism that lead me and hundreds of other Massachusetts Jewish clergy affiliated with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights to oppose a $50 million new women’s prison project, and support the passage of a five-year pause on prison and jail construction in Massachusetts.
We’re following the leadership of formerly incarcerated women at Families for Justice as Healing and The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and rallying behind the prison moratorium so that Massachusetts can shift investments into directly affected communities where residents are already implementing solutions. Rather than disappearing people, our society should give everyone the opportunity to seek accountability and transformation in community – teshuvah.
Our Commonwealth is considering spending at least $50 million building a new women’s prison in Framingham. Massachusetts has the lowest rate of incarceration in the country. The Massachusetts criminal legal system is also rife with stark racial disparities, with spending on incarceration outpacing investment in wellbeing depending on the zip code. Is that the best use of our tax dollars?
We know that the Department of Corrections doesn’t actually correct people’s behavior – they maintain a dehumanizing system that causes further harm and trauma. By spending capital dollars on jail and prison construction instead of alternatives, we will ensure the continuation of this racist, classist, and broken system for decades to come. What else is possible her
This summer, I attended two hearings at the State House concerning the proposed moratorium and other proposed criminal justice reforms. Thanks to Zoom technology and a historic push by activists, I was able to hear directly from incarcerated people – all of whom opposed new prison construction.
Incarcerated people testified about what led them to land on a prison bunk – and often those stories included surviving abuse, violence, and domestic violence themselves. Each of them attested to the lack of medical care or opportunities for self-betterment in jail. I was moved by their bravery, as I’ve learned that incarcerated people face many barriers to speaking out. I left these hearings struck by the passion with which incarcerated people testified – about wanting better for each other in prison and wanting better for all communities in Massachusetts.
In 2022, the prison and jail construction moratorium passed through the Legislature, but was then vetoed by thegovernor. We hope that with Gov. Maura Healey at the helm, this legislation will be signed into law, and the state’s focus will turn toward exploring pathways to release – like clemency – and reinvestment into communities – like housing and treatment.
While some suggest that this bill would prevent important renovations, the bill allows renovations for essential maintenance and to comply with building code requirements. Over the next five years, we can either continue the status quo or decarcerate – starting by bringing home the elderly, the wheelchair-bound, people suffering with dementia, and people who have served decades of time already. Decarceration – starting with aging and sick people and people who are already parole-eligible – is not only humane, it is also sensible fiscal policy. Right now it costs $235,000 every year to incarcerate one woman at MCI-Framingham – and that cost is even higher for women that need significant medical care.
Overwhelming evidence suggests that prisons do not reduce transgression; we know dignified income and education directly reduce crime. The Jewish tradition is clear on the subject of incarceration — it is not considered justice. Jewish people pray to a God who “frees the captive” and is compassionate toward humanity. We believe in the inherent dignity of all human beings. Investing in the incarceration of future generations of women and girls is in direct opposition to these values.
I’m proud that our grassroots organizers and allied legislators are considering this groundbreaking legislation. In the spirit of teshuvah, I hope our leaders will use all of the tools at their disposal to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts and work to implement new tools, like elder parole. Let us emulate the divine by being more compassionate, releasing the captives, and redirecting public resources toward healing and wellbeing. We must pass the prison moratorium and use the next five years to chart a new way forward.
Greg Hersh is the rabbi at Temple Emmanuel of Wakefield.