Cruel and unusual

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Rabbi Barry Freundel, left, with his lawyer, Jeffrey Harris, outside the courthouse where he pleaded guilty to 52 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism for spying on women at his Orthodox synagogue’s mikvah, Feb. 19, 2015. (Dmitriy Shapiro/Washington Jewish Week)
Rabbi Barry Freundel, left, with his lawyer, Jeffrey Harris, outside the courthouse where he pleaded guilty to 52 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism for spying on women at his Orthodox synagogue’s mikvah, Feb. 19, 2015. (Dmitriy Shapiro/Washington Jewish Week)

Disgraced Georgetown Rabbi Barry Freundel, who presided over my wife Emma’s conversion to Judaism while surreptitiously spying on her naked in the mikvah, is currently serving his sentence in solitary confinement in the local jail, supposedly for his own protection.  My wife and I have learned about the rabbi’s deteriorating state through the media, and it grieves us.

Freundel committed 52 counts of voyeurism, a misdemeanor under D.C. law.  Being guilty of multiple misdemeanors does not qualify a defendant to serve his sentence in a federal prison, as I understand the law. (A conviction for a felony would.) At a federal prison, the inmates would most likely pose less of a danger to the rabbi, thus eliminating the need for solitary confinement. I cannot change the law. But I can – and will – lobby the federal government not to make Freundel serve his sentence of 6.5 years of incarceration in solitary confinement.


I do so because of the dangers and harmful consequences of such harsh, cruel, inhumane treatment.

Emma and I are members of the vegan community.  As vegans, we do not believe in cruelty to any being—human or non-human animal.  Freundel’s actions were monstrous, but he himself is not a monster; he is a living being.  Humans are social creatures. Without the benefit of other people to interact with, the mind decays; without anything to do, the brain atrophies.  Isolation and loss of control breeds anger, anxiety, and hopelessness.  Indeed, the Stanford trained psychologist Terry Kupers says that solitary confinement “destroys people as human beings.”  Anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, paranoia, psychosis and self-harm are the effects of solitary confinement.  According to the literature, solitary confinement causes irreversible psychological effects in as few as15 days.  To re-emphasize, humans, like animals, are social creatures.  As someone who supports animal rights, I see Freundel as I would see a lone elephant in a zoo: all alone, suffering in a cage.

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Freundel committed horrible crimes.  I know this better than most, as my wife was victimized by this man.  But, the reason we supported jail time in this case was for Freundel’s rehabilitation.  Solitary confinement offers no benefits, not even the hope of rehabilitation.  Freundel deserves an opportunity to learn from his mistakes, and to make teshuvah, in an environment that supports his transformation and return to society.

But for now, he, and others like him, spend 23 hours or more per day in what’s euphemistically called “administrative segregation” or “special housing,” prisoners are kept in bathroom-sized cells — 6′ X 10′ — under fluorescent lights that never shut off.  Video surveillance is constant.  Social contact is restricted to rare glimpses of other prisoners, encounters with guards, and brief video conferences with friends or family.  For stimulation, prisoners might have a few books.  Often they don’t have television or even a radio.  I interviewed two individuals who were once held in solitary.  They said that in the beginning they slept 20 hours a day, but that after a while they could not even sleep anymore.  They told me that the only thing to do there is go crazy.  Such enforced solitude can last for years, even decades. In Freundel’s case, he’s facing the prospect of another six years and three months in this condition.


You may be surprised to read this, but Rabbi Freundel has our sympathy. We also have sympathy toward other prisoners who are held in solitary confinement. My wife and I are not jumping for joy as a result of Freundel’s sentence, nor do we believe that the he is receiving a “a taste of his own medicine.”  We must show compassion and widen that circle of compassion. We are advocating that Freundel be moved to a facility that will enable him to repent for his crimes without losing his mind. We are hoping that in six years and three months, Freundel will leave jail as a new man, a man who has repented for his crimes – without having lost his mind.

The prospect of Rabbi Freundel being held in solitary confinement for the remainder of this sentence is unconscionable.This would scar an already wounded individual.  Let the punishment fit the crime, but do not let that punishment do more harm than good.

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