Over eighteen years, the Aleph Institute in Miami has worked with more than ten thousand Jewish inmates in US prisons. The difficulties of prison life - ranging from family disruptions to shame and everything in between - create a condition referred to in Jewish law as "in some instances harsher than death." (Minchat Chinuch, mitzva 410.) We have employed the Torah method of behavior modification with prison inmates and received extraordinarily successful results. Although the success of our experiment is validated by anecdotal record rather than statistically controlled studies, the results speak for themselves.
Penologists, social scientists, and psychologists have struggled to find how to bring some purpose and meaning to the "dead time" of incarceration. High rates of recidivism point to the inadequacies of programs that try to make jail an experience that has some positive results.
A human being sentenced to serve time in prison undergoes fundamental change
A human being sentenced to serve time in prison undergoes fundamental change. The inmate suffers from helplessness, lack of choice, forced inactivity, loss of family involvement and environment, lack of purpose and motivation and, in many instances, a loss of desire to live.
Though some effort and research has been initiated to understand the prisoners, the inmate's family has not been addressed at all. This area is at least equally important.
Recognizing the unnatural environment of prison and the bizarre, tragic realities faced by the families of prisoners, the Lubavitcher Rebbe urged the introduction of Torah study, prayer, and Torah-commandment performance to the prisoners and their families. Responding to this mandate, the Aleph Institute organized trained rabbis and volunteers utilizing audio-visual equipment, books, and Torah-commandment paraphernalia (such as phylacteries and prayer shawls) to bring the Torah way of life into prisons. More than ten thousand men and women and their families have been exposed to Torah study, Torah-commandment observance, and prayer with various levels of intensity.
The results, as reflected by thousands of letters, personal accounts, and professional reactions of penology and criminology experts have been nothing short of phenomenal. We have records of individuals who entered prison totally dejected finding new meaning and purpose directly proportional to their spiritual involvement.
[Archives of the Aleph Institute, Bal Harbour, Florida]
These positive results affected the lives of both the prisoners and their families, not only during their sojourn behind bars but even after they returned to a normal environment.
Judges and prison officials have lauded the achievements of the Aleph Institute. If this approach can have a positive impact on the most extreme situation of prison, it can surely succeed in regular circumstances.
Activating the G-dly soul through performing Torah commandments and opening the doors for its expression brings about positive change in human behavior.
Condensed from the original article and reprinted with kind permission from B'Or HaTorah vol. XII (2000), pp.124-126.