The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
“I Adonai have called you in righteousness...To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, from their prisons those who sit in darkness.” Isaiah 42:6-7
With 51,000 inmates sitting in the darkness, Ohio has the fifth largest prison population in the country. The people we lock away each have a story and soul. A few months ago, clergy from across Ohio gathered for a meeting of the Religious Action Center’s newest state based initiative, Reform Ohio.
We listened to the story of Belinda C., a woman in our community getting her life together after release from prison. She described what it is like to grow up in a cycle of poverty and abuse. At age six, she tried drugs for the first time. By fourteen, she turned to prostitution in return for a McDonald’s hamburger. Perhaps the most harrowing fact she shared was that her tale is not an outlier—it is the shared story of many in our cities and towns. Like too many of our young people, and disproportionately our people of color, Belinda’s story eventually led to prison. Now that she is re-entering society, Belinda is making connections and joining support groups. She has finally learned that she is lovable, redeemable and worthy of forgiveness, messages she was deprived of as a child. Every day we cut people like Belinda off from society by imprisoning them for minor crimes. We sever the communal ties of our most vulnerable citizens and restrict their access to treatment.
Thanks in part to Reform Jews across the state of Ohio, after Shabbat fell on Friday night, June 30, Governor Kasich signed the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison program (TCAP) into law. TCAP will keep an extra 3,400 souls a year in their communities receiving the support, treatment and rehabilitation they desperately need. TCAP diverts low level felons away from incarceration in favor of community supervision or treatment. Although our criminal justice system remains broken, this is a huge win toward ending mass incarceration and improving safety and rehabilitation in Ohio. It is the first step we have seen towards reducing our prison population in decades.
Over the course of the past two months, Reform Ohio has been organizing in support of TCAP and Senate Bill 66 (limiting the incarceration of probation violators). Reform Jews are joining with a diverse coalition of people of faith, the formerly incarcerated and survivors of crime. In the course of two months, clergy and congregants met with four state senators and delivered a letter signed by 29 rabbis to Ohio’s leadership! Their hard work has not gone unnoticed as policy advocates and legislators have begun to take note that Reform Jews in our state have a voice on these bills.
As the sun rose on Shabbat, hours after TCAP was signed into law, Jews across the world read from Parashat Chukat. The Torah portion spends 22 lines detailing the lengths taken to purify individuals to remain within the Israelites’ camp. Torah places the highest value on keeping our people among the community. The worst punishment imaginable is to be cut off. For too many years we have been cutting off and locking up Ohioans who can better be treated within society. Governor Kasich heard the demand of Ohio’s Reform Jews and our partners—the call of our prophet Isaiah: that our state become safer and more whole; that our neighbors like Belinda C. belong within our camp; that we bring out those left to sit in the darkness. Next up, Senate Bill 66. Stay tuned for more news from Reform Ohio!
We celebrate those who took a step toward healing our broken criminal justice system by signing the Reform OH TCAP letter. Read the letter here.
Learn more about the RAC’s work on criminal justice reform.
Rabbi Lindsey Danziger is the Lead Organizer for Reform OH, a project of the Religious Action Center.