A new handbook published by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights provides a resource for the Jewish community to press for change around the problem of mass incarceration in the United States.
“We are here to uphold ideas of redemption and mercy,” said T’ruah director of programs Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, citing a colleague who described America’s prisons as having a “mercy deficit.”
The handbook is available for free download at truah.org/incarceration. It provides background and resources – steeped in Jewish texts and teachings – for Jewish communities to take action around these issues. Leading a network of 1,800 rabbis across North America, T’ruah aims to bring attention to an array of domestic social justice issues, as well as human rights for Israelis and Palestinians.
When it comes to mass incarceration, Canada doesn’t have the same problem, but we have similar societal ills when it comes to race, ethnicity and imprisonment – as well as problematic prison conditions themselves – that call out for redress.
The handbook initiative came out of T’ruah’s earlier work on ending solitary confinement. Over the last couple of years, Kahn-Troster has found the Jewish community to be increasingly receptive to grappling with issues around incarceration. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which details the effect that mass incarceration – and the subsequent denial of civil rights for convicted felons – has had on the African American community, really opened people’s eyes, she told the Independent.
Why the term mass incarceration? Compared to other countries, the United States imprisons its population at alarmingly high rates: 698 out of every 100,000 citizens are behind bars. For comparative purposes, Canada’s per capita rate is 141 out of 100,000, according to Statistics Canada.
And then there is the problem of race. African Americans are six times more likely to be jailed than their white counterparts, yet crime rates are not necessarily different. According to American Civil Liberties Union data cited in the T’ruah report, despite equal rates of actual usage, a black person in America is 3.73 times more likely as a white person to be arrested for drug use.
In Canada, blacks are incarcerated at three times their rate in society, according to the Office of Correctional the Investigator of Canada (OCIC). And, while only four percent of the population of Canada is aboriginal, 25% of the prison population is aboriginal. Among the female prison population, fully 36% are aboriginal, and these percentages are only increasing, according to CBC News reporting from January of this year. For aboriginal adults in Canada, the incarceration rate is 10 times higher than for non-aboriginal adults, says OCIC. Maclean’s, in February, quoted criminologists describing Canadian prisons as the country’s new “residential schools.”
In addition, a report from Saskatoon and Regina, cited in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, revealed that indigenous students are 1.6 times more likely to be stopped on the street than non-indigenous students. A Toronto Star analysis revealed that, in Toronto, blacks are three times more likely to be stopped by police than non-blacks.
As the Supreme Court of Canada has noted, “courts must take judicial notice of such matters as the history of colonialism, displacement and residential schools and how that history continues to translate into lower educational attainment, lower incomes, higher unemployment, higher rates of substance abuse and suicide and, of course, higher levels of incarceration for aboriginal peoples.”
The legacy of slavery in America looms large, and racial bias in the criminal justice system continues to haunt society. “People of color are more likely to be pulled over,” Kahn-Troster said. “The War on Drugs enables cops to search them. There’s a higher level of policing in black areas; there’s racial bias in jury selection; it’s easier to strike black people from juries; the sentencing is harsher if there’s a black perpetrator and a white victim than the other way around.”
In Canada, solitary confinement is an ongoing issue, as is overcrowding, concern over mental and physical health and rehabilitation, and an overall troubling rise in incarceration rates just as the crime rate lessens. Reporting in the Toronto Star puts the figure at a 17% increase in the federal prison population over the last decade.
With t’shuvah (repentance), cheshbon hanefesh (personal accounting), a questioning spirit and the search for social justice all core Jewish values, T’ruah’s initiative is laudable. It’s easy to look away – and harder to do the tough work of asking how we can both prevent harm to victims while improving our nation’s justice system to avoid discrimination and to shelter the most vulnerable.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications.