In what ways do Jewish values address incarceration, and particularly prisoner wages for work done? In the USA, federal and state prisons "employ" prisoners at very low wages ($0.25-2.00 per hour) for work both inside and supervised work outside the prisons.What does Judaism say about treatment of prisoners?
The most basic value pertaining to your question is the matter of respect. We are obligated to treat everyone respectfully; by everyone, we mean everyone, even those about whom one may argue that they to not deserve to be treated respectfully. That is not our call, nor is it our right to treat people disdainfully.
Prisons are not necessarily places wherein respect is the order of the day. But if the objective of a prison stay is rehabilitation, disrespect is not conducive to rehabilitation. On the other hand, a prisoner who is treated respectfully has a greater chance of moving away from the anti-social feelings that may have precipitated the crime.
We are not condoning any crime by according people fundamental respect. Fundamental respect is not the same as deference, a more profound level of respect that may be more difficult to justify for a murderer or rapist.
As to wages, I am a bit perplexed. Prisons provide the basic necessities for the prisoners, including food, shelter, and clothing. Obviously, these are not of hotel quality. After all, prison is intended to be punishment for a crime committed; punishment with a purpose, but still punishment.
Technically, I am not sure there is any obligation to "pay" prisoners for work. It can be argued that work is part of prison life, if the prisoner is able. Wages seem like a questionable entitlement. So, any wages are by definition fair.
What can be worse than unfair is a brutal work load. That is a form of disrespect, even cruelty, that has no place anywhere, including prison.
Jewish sources say surprisingly little about prisons and prisoner treatment, because imprisonment is not a traditional form of punishment in the Jewish legal system. The Bible and later rabbinic literature make only passing references to incarceration as a very temporary measure prior to sentencing, mostly in capital cases. The closest halakhic sources come to addressing imprisonment and prisoners’ rights is the ancient, two-tiered institution of indentured servitude and permanent slavery. The Eved Ivri, or Hebrew indentured servant, served his master, a fellow Israelite, for six years, usually to work off debt or penalties incurred by theft, and was freed in the seventh year. From the Bible to the latest medieval sources, the master was obligated to respectfully treat the Eved Ivri as his equal in nearly all things. The Eved C’naani, (literally “Canaanite slave”), was a non-Jewish slave owned by a Jewish master. Though technically, one’s master could treat him as he saw fit, the great scholar, Maimonides, already ruled in the 12th century that, “the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom” was to treat one’s slaves with the utmost respect, kindness, and compassion. Though we utterly reject the practice of all types of slavery and servitude as morally repugnant, our ancestors sought to balance servitude as a common institution of their world with the Torah’s values of promoting freedom and human dignity. The long arc of Jewish law bends towards justice and dignified treatment for laborers, whether indentured, enslaved, or freed. This is based upon the biblical principles of being created in God’s image, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, God’s passionate concern for the powerless and the poor, and k’vod ha-briyot, treating all human beings with respect.
The long arc of Jewish law also bends towards giving those who sin the opportunity to do teshuvah, to repent, by making moral, verbal, and financial restitution to those they have harmed. Even capital punishment, a normative but rarely exercised punitive measure in Jewish law, provides for the individual to repent prior to being put to death by a court. All of these Jewish values and principles shine a harsh and disturbing light on the American penal justice system as it currently functions. Theoretically, the American prison system is founded upon an amalgam of two philosophical perspectives: a) prison is a form of retribution for criminal behavior: “you do the crime, you do the time;” b) prison is an opportunity for the criminal to be rehabilitated after being removed from society for the sake of its safety. With rare exceptions, the American prison system emphasizes the former principle far more than the latter. This is increasingly the case as state and county legislatures drastically reduce budgets for prison rehabilitation services (mental health, GED, job training and college credit courses etc). It is exacerbated by the often cynical “tough on crime” stances adopted by politicians that exploit the public’s legitimate fears about safety and that demonize criminals as less than human. Finally, studies have amply proven that our penal system, together with other institutions, perpetuates destructive race and class discrimination through its disproportionate incarceration of poor people of color.
Judaism strongly advocates for law abidance and for the rights of crime victims; these are inherent aspects of its insistence upon justice, safety, and civilized living. However, Judaism also rejects the contemptible idea that someone convicted and incarcerated for a crime is to be treated like a sweat shop slave, shackled to meaningless work for slave wages that do not afford the prisoner rehabilitative training or decent remuneration that can be used productively upon release from prison. Further, Jewish law requires that we lift the poor out of their poverty by giving them the dignified means to earn money self- sufficiently through job training, work, and business loans. (See Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah, of which this is the highest level.) Contemporary studies, in fact, confirm that when prison systems give their overwhelmingly poor and disadvantaged inmates opportunities for education and job training, as well as for earning and saving real salaries, their rates of recidivism upon release from prison plummet.
I do not oppose the penal system as a form of reasonable retributive justice, correction, deterrence and rehabilitation. Nor am I convinced that Judaism would advocate for abolition of the prison system. Nonetheless, an authentic Jewish values approach would condemn the abysmal conditions of brutality and neglect that currently exist in far too many American prisons and prison employment services. A true Jewish approach to the American penal system would demand radical reform which emphasizes quality rehabilitation for as many inmates as possible. It would demand that we treat criminals as real human beings whose crimes do not automatically condemn them to a living death behind bars that only hardens them even more, in anticipation of their return to society.
Sources for this article include:
Shmuely Yanklowitz, “Prison Reform: A Torah Perspective On The American Crisis.” See utzedek.org.
Chandra Bozelko, “Giving Working Prisoners Dignity—And Decent Wages.” See nationalreview.com.
Articles on employer-employee relations and contracts in Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, eds.The Observant Life, (New York, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2012.)
Eliyahu Touger, trans. Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Slaves,” chapter 9:8. See chabad.org.
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