Selected Jewish References on Prisoners and Prisons

1.Genesis 39-40: Prison in a foreign culture – false testimony puts Joseph in prison. [Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s Pentateuch, p. 149, commentary on Gen. 40:2: “The light of a superior mind and soul cannot be hidden even in a prison.”]

2.Leviticus 24:12: Placed in custody for being accused of intentionally and publicly blaspheming G-dís name, an Israelite is later condemned to death by stoning, leading to later rabbinic sources virtually outlawing capital punishment by making the literal enforcement of the law impossible.

3.Numbers 15:34: As in number 2 above, an Israelite is placed in custody for being accused of intentionally and publicly breaking a Sabbath rule, he too suffers the penalty of death by stoning.

4.Jeremiah 37:11-8:13: The out-spoken prophet is falsely accused of treason and imprisoned and later punished by being thrown into a muddy pit.

5.Isaiah 42:6-7: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, I have taken hold of your hand, and kept you, and appointed you for a covenant of the people, for a light to the nations, to open the blinded eyes, to bring out the imprisoned from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” [The prophet uses the metaphor of physical confinement for spiritual blindness and imprisonment.]

6.Isaiah 61:1: “…(G-d) has sent me to…proclaim release to the captives, and liberation to the imprisoned…”

7. Psalm 146:7-8: “…G-d releases the captives, (and) opens the eyes of the blind.”

8.Mishnah Pesachim 8:6 Speaks of the Jewish community’s responsibility for carrying out certain Passover rituals for an imprisoned man.

9.Mishnah Horayot 3:7: For fear of immodesty and worse, “a woman has precedence over a man with regard to clothing and release from prison”.

10. Talmud Sotah 24a-27b includes mention of the difficulties of a woman’s fidelity when her husband is incarcerated, among other situations in which she finds herself.

11. Talmud Berachot: Once when Rabbi Chanina became gravely ill, Rabbi Yochanan came by and sat down to visit him. While speaking with him, Rabbi Yochanan remembered that Chanina had healed someone with the exact same illness. Rabbi Yochanan then said, “Rabbi Chanina, why don’t you heal yourself?” Rabbi Chanina replied, ìPrisoners cannot take themselves out of their own prisonî Rabbi Yochanan then got up and healed him.

12. The Torah enumerates and defines many forms of punishment for sinners and convicted offenders, from simple fines to flogging and even capital punishment. Yet nowhere does it suggest incarceration as a form of punishment. This is simply because the purpose of existence is to establish a G-dly abode in this world, which is accomplished by utilizing our individual, Divinely endowed strengths and talents in the service of G-d. With all other forms of punishment, the individual suffers the penalty, is cleansed of his sin, and is then restored to freedom where he is expected to resume a productive life in the making of a more G-dly world. As a prisoner, however, one is denied the freedom to fulfill his divinely ordained mission, and hence, his reason for living. This is the consequence of the death penalty, a punishment, if warranted by Torah, is the only atonement the offender can obtain. However, to allow one to live and yet to deprive him of living, is inhumane.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, quoted in Insights, No. 12, Summer 1996, p. 18.

13. No religious group which takes its values seriously should rest content until (we) demand and get a system which will correct and not merely punish, rehabilitate and not debilitate, which will treat prisoners and not merely stigmatize them, which will regard them as human beings whom we must strive to restore to usefulness and not as open targets for social vengeance.

Rabbi Albert Vorspan, Great Jewish Debates and Dilemmas, p. 203

14. For most (inmates), their Jewishness provides a degree of personal and group security in a miserable, lonely situation. Their own group is a source of camaraderie, significant because strong group affiliation is a way of life in prisons. Their Jewish identity is inalienable and fills them with a sense of worth. Given this situation, it becomes clear why Jewish inmates feel hurt, betrayed and frustrated when they are forgotten or rejected by their own people.

Debbi Jacobson, “Meet the Jewish Convict.” Davka Magazine, 1973, pp. 18-20

15. Gates of Prayer, p. 14f (Morning Benedictions): “Praised be the Eternal God who frees the captive.”

16. Gates of Prayer, p. 23f: In the daily Amidah, we praise G-d who shows his might by healing the sick, supporting the fallen and freeing the captives. So are we obligated to be like G-d.