My Friday night Shabbat dinners usually consist of good food, the traditional cup of wine (Kiddush), and the company of family and friends. However, this past Shabbat was a bit different.
It was still on a Friday night, and I did have three friends with me, but the food we ate was only bread, we drank grape juice instead of wine, there wasn't much singing, and I was in a room with 22 inmates at the San Quentin state prison.
We traveled to SQ Friday afternoon to bring some joy, some words of Torah, and a legal presentation about State v. Chui to the inmates. I must admit I was nervous going in, and going through the extensive security check didn't help, but all my anxiety dissipated once we sat down and I realized that the inmates were excited to have us there.
The visit was the initiative of the Hastings Jewish Law Students Association (HJLSA). Some of us work in criminal law, some of us were just curious, but all of us came out with a different perspective on the inmates.
The crimes they were convicted of may not be easy to stomach. But today is after the fact. In many cases, 20 or 30 years after the fact. Incidentally, President Obama gave a speech this week at the NAACP’s annual convention discussing the US criminal justice system and those incarcerated, he is quoted as saying: "they are also Americans [the prisoners], and we have to make sure that as they do their time that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around…. Justice and redemption go hand in hand.” While many of the inmates we met were what they called "lifers," the principle still applies, they had seemed to turn their lives around while being incarcerated; they were kind and sincere, and they maintained a positive conviction. Speaking to these inmates exposed us to the humanity that remained.
Being imprisoned does not negate the person nor should it deny someone from becoming better than the person they were. Despite what these inmates have done, they are different now, and defining them based on their past indiscretions is an injustice to who they are now. Friday night at SQ was definitely one of my most eye-opening Shabbat dinners, even without the wine.
- Jacob Erez
Rising 2L and HJLSA Vice President Genna Promnick also contributed to this report.