By Tina Wexler
Our society’s unwillingness to forgive anyone who has been in prison for any crime, even in the most basic ways, is a major stumbling block to keeping former inmates out of the prison system. This is apparent in material, tangible ways – on the job application, in further dealings with law enforcement, in the search for housing. It is also apparent in less material, but fundamentally more important ways, like public discourse, daily treatment, and communal attitudes. Formerly incarcerated persons (FIPs) are too often dismissed as permanently dangerous or broken, instead of being treated as human beings in need of both aid and respect.
On Yom Kippur, we do not merely ask for forgiveness for our personal indiscretions over the year. There is an inherent understanding in the mandated confessions of the day that we must also strive for forgiveness for all in our community. We personally do not achieve atonement unless we acknowledge our wrongs done to each other. In one of the more pressing practical applications of this principle, effective reintegration into society can only occur through real and lasting communal forgiveness and acceptance. When this does not happen, the consequences are real as well as spiritual- those who found themselves in prison once enter the “revolving door” of the judicial and corrections systems.
AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps works in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., and has a number of volunteer placements at organizations that tackle the effective reintegration of formerly incarcerated persons (FIPs) into society. These organizations tackle the public’s views on reintegration and FIPs in different ways, and often work with local communities to strengthen their long-term impact. All of them develop solutions with the input and extended involvement of FIPs in their community and those in the same city usually partner to provide multi-faceted solutions to the problem.
Here are some of AVODAH’s placements pioneering new approaches:
Red Hook Community Justice Center in New York City provides an alternative community court to help mediate paroles, probations, and minor infractions. They seek to provide alternatives to prison through a broad array of community resources, the most well-known being their community-based court. Through this community court, former prisoners are offered targeted means to successful reentry instead of slapping them with harsher sentences for minor violations. Red Hook also works as part of the larger Center for Court Innovation, which offers both public education/outreach and direct services to a broad range of New York’s FIPs.
Resurrection After Exoneration in New Orleans provides both direct services and the opportunity for wrongly convicted men and women in Louisiana to tell their stories to the public, through a program called Voices of Innocence. RAE is piloted by a former death row exoneree, John Thompson, who brings others like himself to tell the public their stories of battling wrongful conviction to audiences around the country. RAE also promotes public education through interviews on local radio and television shows and outlets like StoryCorp. Most importantly, RAE advocates that exonerees always speak for themselves, instead of having their personal stories told by others.
Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) in New Orleans is an organization run by and for FIPs. VOTE aims to give heightened political voice to FIPs attempting to successfully reintegrate into the community through community organizing. VOTE trains involved FIPs as community leaders to organize and teach others in their situation, as well as family and friends, how to effectively participate in the democratic process for change.
These organizations present a model for social change that is only effective when it incorporates the voices of those who need it, as opposed to telling them what they need to succeed. This is especially important in the FIP community, which is so often dehumanized and dismissed. When we learn to not only forgive but to appreciate the humanity of former inmates we can begin to reintegrate them into our communities and to stop the cycle of crime and violence perpetuated by our stereotypes.
This High Holiday season we are thinking about collective sin and collective forgiveness. Let’s take that one step further by finding real world solutions to apply Judaism’s timeless teachings.
As an AVODAH Corps member in 2009-2010, Tina Wexler worked as an Exoneree Advocate for the Innocence Project of New Orleans/Resurrection After Exoneration. She is currently a first year medical student at the Sackler School of Medicine-New York State/American Program and lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.