There is something voyeuristic about watching prison documentaries. Or is it just me? I found myself unwittingly glued to the TV the other night during a special on female inmates. I felt a little sleazy, peering in at this sexually segregated space. But the curiosity was overwhelming. I suppose that we look to see how inmates will try to mimic social norms, searching for clues as to how our paradigms can be perverted and caricatured. Regardless, the show got me wondering about prisons, and women in prisons in particular. As I started to scratch the surface, I found that the questions multiplied like fractals. What makes the female experience unique? Male and female prisons are built virtually the same, so what marks a difference in the male and female experience? Since I’m charged with considering these matters from a Jewish perspective, what light does this tradition shed on the penal system?
In the United States, we imprison more people than in any other nation in the world. Though we only count five percent of the world’s population, we house over a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Of those, only 10 percent are women, but this marks an 800 percent increase in the past three decades. I won’t speculate as to why this is, but one obvious answer–that as women become less cloistered in the private sphere, they become more vulnerable to the economic pressures that prompt men to commit crimes–seems too easy. The vast majority of women in prison are non-violent offenders. Either way, more women are in jail than ever before.
We don’t jail anyone out of spite. For one thing, it’s way too expensive to feed, clothe, or house thousands of people for multiple years. And for another, it’s impossible to legally quantify revenge. So, setting aside the specific arguments as to whether or not prisons do any good, let’s simply posit what their theoretical purpose is: we send people to jail to rehabilitate them, to return them to productive form, and to heal what is essentially a wound in society’s side. Jails are a band-aid response to an illness in the human family. In the Torah, incarceration is notably excluded as a sentencing option. A criminal might be subjected instead to fines, indentured servitude, or corporeal punishment. In Jewish ideology, the criminal justice system exists to restore balance in society and benefit all parties, including the perpetrator. Isolation through incarceration is socially destabilizing, so it’s not on the menu. But Jews observe the laws of their host countries. So there are, in fact, Jews in jail in America.
I told a friend that I was going to include something in this piece about Jewish women in prison. He looked confused for a moment and asked, “There are Jewish women in prison?” (He then followed up by the obligatory “nagging their husbands to death” jokes.) Well, yes in fact. Contemporary notables include Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood madam imprisoned temporarily for money laundering and tax evasion, Sarah Jane Moore, the nursing school student incarcerated and later paroled for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford, and Mazoltuv Borukhova, the Queens doctor recently convicted of hiring a hit man to murder her husband. Apparently these and other women feel excluded and forgotten by the community. This strikes me as strange for a community of people who seem to live by a no-person-left-behind ethos. I kind of like that about us. But this convenient amnesia speaks to a communal shame, and also blindness to the fact that we are not a cohesive community of upper middle class Brandeis graduates. This is a multifaceted socioeconomic group. Prisons are deeply racist spaces. To pretend that we are not in the mix somehow doubles that racism back on itself.
But let’s take a step back to simply look at the conditions for women in prison. For one thing, most prison guards in the United States are male. The rates of sexual abuse and violence are appalling, and warrant a separate article. But that violence aside, what makes the female experience of incarceration different from that of a man? Pregnancy and childbirth. Pregnant prisoners are routinely shackled during gynecological examinations and even, shockingly, while giving birth. Relatively few states have laws banning the practice. Evelyn Jane Atwood’s photography and essays for Amnesty International speak eloquently on the subject. Looking at the image of a woman in the final throes of labor with her arms bound at the wrists, conjures up the ominous whisper, “They eat their young.” It is social cannibalism and it reveals an almost unspeakable fissure of misogyny in our culture. Not to mention that it makes a mockery of the proud American notion of being “born free.”
I had a mind-altering moment in my exploration of Judaism, when a Rabbi re-contextualized the “eye for an eye” dictum for me. It is not a punitive or retributive policy, but rather intended to keep punishment reasonable and equitable, and evolved as a counter-measure to harsh Sumerian policies. In Sumerian courts, thieves could have hands cut off and adulterers could be stoned to death. Yet, a recurring theme in many discussions of Jewish justice is mercy. There is no mercy in restraining a woman during childbirth and no wisdom in allowing it to continue.
Liz Lawler also blogs at The Jew and the Carrot.