For most of us, Yom Kippur is a finite time of atonement and reflection. For prisoners, many days might be this way. I talked to Matthew Perry, the executive director of nonprofit Jewish Prisoner Services International, to understand the mindset of Jewish prisoners this week. Perry is based in Washington state, but his work transcends geography. The organization conducts chaplaincy, advocacy and social work with incarcerated Jewish inmates and their families. He spoke to JewishBoston about the poignancy of his mission, especially during Yom Kippur, and his thoughts on forgiveness and redemption among the imprisoned population.
What do you do?
In simple words: When a person of the Jewish faith is arrested or gets in trouble with the law, we usually get a phone call from either the family or the jail authorities. Often people don’t know that jail is a short-term incarceration, while prison is usually after trial and is a longer-term incarceration. So we usually get a notification from the jail. A lot of times, our work starts with making sure that Jewish inmates can get a kosher meal, get a yarmulke and are able to receive religious writings—really anything they may need for observing the Jewish faith while incarcerated. We don’t do legal work, but we do work with whomever represents them to find out about any mitigating circumstance and find alternative sentencing options.
How does that work—and why?
Sometimes a person has committed a crime, but the reason they committed the crime is based on the fact that they have mental health issues. It’s better to get someone into mental health treatment than to lock them up in a prison or jail facility. So we work to do all of that and present our opinions to the court, to the judge, and see if we can make it so it’s easier. We conduct restorative justice. This means we make it so the person or persons who have been wronged in the crime feel that their voice is heard and they get to have a say in what happens to the person who committed the crime.
This week in particular, obviously, is one of reflection and atonement. What’s your schedule in the coming days?
I will be talking to every single person I work with through phone and email and implore them to think very hard about the reasons they came to prison and what they’re doing at every minute to change that. I talk with inmates, mostly the ones who have [committed] more heinous crimes, and try to pass to them the concept of teshuva. It’s about figuring out how to make sure they don’t just say they’re not going to do the crime they committed again but have a plan in place that actually makes that more of a reality. It’s easy to say, “I will never do this again.” But it’s harder to come up with a plan that you can put down to paper that says, “This is what I’ll do to prevent this from happening again.”
One of the things we believe in is that you don’t just say you’re not going to do something; you come up with ways to make sure that you won’t do it again. So a person who’s committed a sex crime, for example, trying to find out what their triggers are and what caused them to commit the crime in the first place, and figuring out with them: What do they do when they see the trigger signs coming up? Who do they go talk to? We’re looking for commitment to actions.
What are those actions that will ideally prevent someone from committing another crime?
Sometimes it’s talking to a counselor, or a chaplain, or a volunteer from a religious group. You have to find who would be the person that would work best for you—and understanding that if you approach the problem when it’s small, it will not become a big problem. I also recommend for inmates to write letters that will never be sent to the victim of the crime, saying, “This is what happened; this is what I did. And this is what I’m doing to make sure I don’t do this again.” Putting that kind of stuff onto paper is very powerful and very strong.
Do a lot of people feel genuine remorse, or do you ever confront people who don’t recognize the depth of their crime, for whatever reason?
A lot of people, when they first get arrested, don’t feel immediate remorse. Usually, the first thought is sadness about the fact that they get caught doing whatever they did. Sometimes the remorse comes later. One of the things we do is work with volunteers who go into the prisons and teach classes that make people think about the reasons they committed a crime—classes about Jewish morals and stuff like that. We usually find that people take a year or two to figure out their connection to what they did and the fact that what they did actually hurt other people, not just them. People don’t always realize that when they commit a crime, it’s not just them and the victim who gets hurt; it sometimes hurts the family of the inmate, friends of the inmate, people in the community who may or even may not have known the person. All these people get affected by this one crime, and that’s much larger than most people understand.
What’s the best part of your job?
I think the best part of redemption is when someone comes out of prison and is looking for ways where they can help the people who are most affected by the crime they committed. So sex offenders who went through treatment and realize how damaging their actions were. And they go through life trying to raise funds for centers for treatment of victims of sex crimes, or try to raise awareness of sex crimes and their impact on the victims. That’s when you really see the impact of what you did. It’s hard for people to come to that point. But there are people who get there, people who will say, “I did a crime. I hurt my community. Now I need to give back to the community.”
Do you think people are capable of changing and are capable of rehabilitation?
Yes. I think there’s a very small number of people who the psychiatric community would classify as not able to change because of a mental defect. You know, those are very few and far between. Most people, with guidance and treatment, can do that. Most people end up in prison because they have mental health issues that were never met.
What would you like people to know about people who are incarcerated? What are some misperceptions or aspects of prison life that don’t get talked about enough?
I think the biggest misconception in our community is that people who go to prisons are bad people. Most people who go to prisons are sick people. They commit crimes because they have unmet mental health issues. And I want people to remember that the people who go to prison are family members, neighbors, community members from our own communities, and they will come back to the community. And if we just try to shun them, we’re not solving anything.