Speaking against solitary confinement with Rabbi Charles Feinberg

(Photo by Sarah Feinberg

Eight years ago, when Rabbi Charles Feinberg stepped down from the bimah at Adas Israel Congregation, a group of activists came to him and asked if he would take on a part-time role as executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.

He said yes to the prison-reform nonprofit. He didn’t expect the organization would become more of a full-time job with staff members operating out of his basement in the District’s Shepherd Park neighborhood.

“The mission of our organization is to change the culture of prisons from one primarily of punishment to one of rehabilitation and healing,” said the 75-year-old Conservative rabbi, who has also served as a chaplain for incarcerated individuals and as a leader of T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call to Human Rights.

IAHR, he said, writes legislation and finds sponsors in both the Maryland and Virginia legislatures. “Our goal has been to end the abuse of prolonged isolation of solitary confinement.”


IAHR represents people of faith who educate and advocate in Maryland, the District and Virginia for corrections systems to avoid unnecessarily punitive practices such as solitary confinement.

Feinberg said the organization’s accomplishments include enforcement of mandatory reporting on the use of solitary confinement and an end to teens being subjected to it.

“Our first task was to find out how much solitary is being used. We got legislation passed in both Maryland and Virginia for what we call the reporting bill which mandated that the Department of Corrections in both states would have to report each year how often solitary confinement is used. How many people are put in solitary? What percentage of the prison population? How many people are trying to hurt themselves in solitary? How many people are released to the community? What’s the average length of stay?”

Research has found that use of prolonged solitary confinement is mentally destabilizing and the effects can be long term, according to the IAHR website.

Statistics indicate that the use of solitary confinement grew to more than 9 percent of the Maryland prison population from 2012 to 2015, more than double the national average.

“A United Nations special rapporteur on torture laid out ethical ways to interrogate people and to hold them as prisoners,” Feinberg said. “In that report, it found that it was an act of torture isolating someone for more than 20 hours a day for 15 consecutive days.”

In Maryland, prisoners can be put into solitary confinement for minor infractions. The average length of stay is 130 days in solitary and the average length of stay for someone who is mentally ill is 228 days.

“We as an interfaith group feel that that one of the values that binds us together is the religious and spiritual belief that no matter what a person may have done that person should be treated with respect. And we believe that in our prisons, people are rarely treated with respect. And solitary confinement is a linchpin of how the system maintains its security in prison.”

IAHR was also successful in getting a bill passed that ends solitary confinement for teens.

That accomplished, IAHR is lobbying for legislation in Maryland and Virginia that would restrict isolation to no more than 15 consecutive days.

That goal may be reached under the leadership of another executive director. Feinberg is set to retire from his position. He will continue on the group’s advisory board.

IAHR will honor Feinberg and others on Oct. 27 at its fourth annual “Human Rights at the Prison Door” event, held at Adas Israel.

Feinberg’s departure caps a 42-year career in the rabbinate, spanning Adas Israel and synagogues in Madison, Wis., Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Vancouver, British Columbia.

He said that social justice was always part of his portfolio. “When you’re a congregational leader, your primary obligation is to serve the needs of your congregation. Social justice is just one slice of the pie of what you have to do.”

Feinberg said his commitment is rooted in the belief of the “dignity of each human being and that each individual is a reflection of the divine. We feel that’s critically important in our society that we don’t torture other people. It’s a great blemish on our society and I think it’s a moral issue for which religious communities can speak with a powerful voice.”

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