When deciding how to structure and operate our prisons, suggests Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, we should treat them less like holding cells and more like rehabilitation centers. This model, he says, is actually based on the Torah and has been greatly successful in Israel. He describes one of these Israeli prisons:
The relationship between inmates and officers was cordial, rather than adversarial; prisoners called officers by their first names. The episode showed prisoners with a good deal of freedom to roam, whole families living together in communal areas with their own kitchens and bathrooms, and a rich variety of educational offerings, including vocational training and degree-granting programs, leading even to a doctorate.
This prison model is the reason, Rabbi Adlerstein believes, that “recidivism is about 20 percent less in Israel than in the West.” Isreali Supreme Court head Aharon Barak says, “The prison walls must not come between the prisoner and human dignity.”
Rabbi Adlerstein was deeply moved when he heard Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky address the inmates of Israel’s largest prison some years ago. He pointed out that “the sections on criminal behavior [in the Torah] make no mention of prisons. The Torah does, however, speak of how to deal with a thief.”:
According to the Talmud’s interpretation—and that is the only one that has legal teeth—a convicted thief can be ordered into a program of contractual servitude to pay off what he has stolen. For six years, he lives with a family. The law specifies that he must be treated as an equal. He must be given the same food, the same clothes, as his boss. If the two are travelling and find a room with only one bed, the servant gets the bad, and the master must sleep on the floor, because to do the opposite would be against the law. For six years, he is treated with dignity—perhaps for the first time in his life. People say ‘thank you’ to him when he helps. He picks up skills on the job. When he leaves, he is armed with self-respect and a resume. Who do you think is better off? According to our way, the criminal is not treated with a slap on the wrist either. For six years, he loses his freedom, which is punishment enough. And society gets back a whole person.
Aharon Barak concludes by reminding us: “An enlightened society is judged by the treatment of its prisoners.” How much are we, as a society, willing to uphold forgiveness as more than just a private value?