On the 23rd of each month, activists around the country turn their attention to the tens of thousands of Americans suffering in solitary confinement – and they invite the public to do the same. Tomorrow, advocates will stage actions and events in California, New York, Connecticut, and beyond in an effort to increase awareness of this issue and to grow support for solitary reform.
This month, the 23rd also falls at the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover – the commemoration of the liberation of Jews from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. Each Passover, Jews around the world retell the story of their ancestors’ liberation from slavery and recommit themselves and their communities to working toward liberation today. That consciousness has inspired Jews for generations to engage in social justice work, including fighting for a criminal justice system free from oppression and injustice. As they observe the holiday this year—especially tomorrow, April 23rd—no doubt some Jews will be thinking of those desperate for liberation from the physical and psychological constraints of 23 hours a day in isolation.
Judaism is certainly not unique among religions for offering such an opportunity for contemplation and dialogue on this issue. “All faith scriptures have the basic tenet to care for the vulnerable and the outcast,” explains Chris McNabb, an organizer for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s (NRCAT) New Jersey chapter and student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Those principles have long brought people of faith to social justice causes, and it’s these folks who have become some of the most active leaders and participants in the effort for solitary confinement reform.
With one of the most prolific histories of solitary confinement use and with solitary confinement rates still well above the national average, New Jersey also has some of the strongest anti-solitary faith activists. Religious leaders in the state have taken advantage of their unique motivation, perspective, and position to add a critical voice to the statewide conversation around solitary confinement.
Faith-based action comes in many forms. Bonnie Kerness of the American Friends’ Service Committee, for example, takes advantage of the infrastructure of religion to educate a wide audience of clergy and laypeople. Based in Newark, she travels regularly to churches around the state to give presentations about the harms of solitary confinement. She is often accompanied by Ojore Lutalo, an artist and survivor of solitary confinement and the person who first opened her eyes to this issue decades ago. Between the two of them, this duo can reach their audience on a rational, emotional, and moral level. Kerness’ talks can draw crowds, and audiences are often composed of pastors or other religious leaders who can spread the message further within their own congregations.
Other approaches draw more on what churches offer spiritually, integrating conversations about solitary confinement with prayer service and spiritual reflection. An event held at Trinity Church in Princeton over Martin Luther King Day weekend this year featured two days of prayer, sermons, music, and more. Participants engaged in a 24-hour prayer vigil with a replica solitary cell – acknowledging and meditating on the 24 hours a day some people in isolation are confined to their cells. It also included a forum hosted by a solitary survivor, Terrell Blount. From the perspective of organizer Chris McNabb, the event made use of one of the most valuable things houses of worship have to offer – the opportunity to learn in a sacred environment.
For some religious communities, solitary confinement is already a personal issue. As a pastor for an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Woodbury, Reverend Charles Boyer engages with this issue out of moral and religious duty, but also out of concern for his own community. New Jersey, like the U.S. as a whole, incarcerates black Americans at a disproportionately high rate, and within the incarcerated population, data suggests that solitary confinement is used more frequently for black than for white individuals. As a home to many people affected by the criminal justice system, and as a key support system for people returning from prison, it is the responsibility of the black church, as Rev. Boyer sees it, to “support anything and everything that will lead to the liberation of our people.” For this reason, Rev. Boyer has focused his energy on capturing the interest and support of folks within his own denomination. Just this month, he attended the New Jersey AME’s annual conference, where he planned to speak on the issue of solitary confinement. They’ve heard it from him before – already he’s organized a sign-on letter demonstrating the support of New Jersey’s 90 AME churches and 20,000 members. By building unified support in his church, Rev. Boyer is able to easily connect interested members to national and statewide initiatives. Most recently, he has partnered with Lifelines to Solitary, a correspondence program connecting outside folks with people in solitary.
These leaders have achieved incredible success in their own efforts, but the real power of the religious voice is seen when they all come together. For more than a year, that’s exactly what these and other religious leaders have done, as they have worked to support legislation to reform solitary confinement practices in the state. When first introduced in late 2014, NRCAT organized an Interfaith Statement Against Solitary Confinement, conveying to the legislature the support of faith communities across the state. Now, reintroduced in the current legislative session as S 51 – the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act – religious leaders continue their efforts to turn this bill into law. Last month when the bill was heard in committee, the faith community made sure they were heard as well. Three religious leaders testified in support of the bill, others attended the hearing, and still more called their legislators to show their support.
This week Jews around the world will end their Passover Seders with the same words, “This year we are slaves; next year may we all be free.” So often that is the role of the faith community – to serve as an unyielding, prophetic reminder to our leaders and our nation as a whole that we can do better, we must do better and we will do better.