The Torah doesn’t believe in prisons. Yes, you read that right. That’s not to say there is no place for prison, but that the ideal is rehabilitation, not incarceration.
In fact, the only place we find mention of prisons in the Torah is in Egypt, when Pharaoh locks up Joseph for a crime he did not commit.
We seem to have lost our moral compass in that we view prison as the goal, not as an unfortunate but necessary means to correction.
The United States leads the way and, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013, almost seven million Americans were either in prison, on probation, or on parole. That is 2.8 percent of adults, or one in every 35 for the US resident population.
And if we think in the UK we are any better, a quick look at reoffending rates, will make us think again.
According to the Justice Ministry, prison sentences of less than 12 months have a 59 percent reoffending rate, one-to-four-year terms have 36 percent, four-to-10-years are at 27 percent, and more than 10 years have 18 percent. This all seems rather shocking.
If the purpose of the prison system is to discourage offenders and rehabilitate them, we have two major questions to ask: why is it not preventing those who commit crimes, and why do we see such astronomical rates of reoffending?
In a culture in which we are so used to locking people up as an ends in and of itself, the hot topic of prison reform is a crucial one.
Can an ancient text such as the Torah shed any significant light to our approach to prison sentencing and the life of an inmate?
The concept of prison as an end does not hold much weight in the Torah, as the goal is rehabilitation and re-engagement with society.
A perfect example of this is that when someone commits a crime, his punishment is to become a servant, and tend to the needs of others.
Other than this being a precursor to the community service model, it serves to teach us that crimes committed are often out of desperation, loneliness and a lack of understanding of the harmful
effects on others.
By re-educating the offender to serve others, we are affectively teaching him the core values of life, and essentially freedom. He must learn that true freedom has its boundaries. Freedom has its limitations. If not so, there would be pandemonium. This is what we instill in the offender.
Furthermore, in terms of treatment of prisoners, the Torah seeks to treat them in high regard.
If the goal is rehabilitation, we must re-educate the offender that he is a valued member of society, and not to reinforce his identity as a lowlife as he is likely to have been told all his life.
As a modern society, we have a long way to go in understanding how to “fix the problem” of our prison system.
If we begin to foster an atmosphere of caring within our prison systems, we may find our focus truly does shift from incarceration, to successful rehabilitation.
• Ari Kayser is a rabbi at Aish Schools