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Destined for Prison?

What happens when two rabbis-in-training are driving on the “Loneliest Road in America?” This isn’t a set-up for a Borscht Belt joke. In the summer of 2017, together with a colleague, I spent a month visiting hundreds of Jewish inmates across six West Coast states. As a twenty-year-old, the trip was an eye-opening experience for me on many levels, but it was on Route 50 in Northern Nevada that I learned the most profound lesson of all: the central role broken and unhealthy families play in criminal formation.

Studying at rabbinical school in Brooklyn imparted in me a zeal to help my fellow Jews. The community that I had grown up and studied in—the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—aims to teach every Jew about their heritage, notwithstanding their apparent distance from God. “In relation to the soul,” I was taught, “all are equal in the eyes of God.” It was my job as a rabbinical student to help Jews reveal their divine souls. This belief propelled me to volunteer with the Aleph Institute—a Jewish prisoners’ advocacy organization—which led my colleague and I to fly to the West Coast to begin our month-long tour.

Our first prison was on the outskirts of Las Vegas. After we were thoroughly searched, we were allowed entry. The first thing that hit me as I entered the prison was its distinct smell, a mix of male sweat and disinfectant. The harsh glare of fluorescent light bulbs only added to the sense of gloom. Inmates in orange jumpsuits roamed the central courtyard, with blank stares on their faces. I was in another world with its own rules and assumptions. The prison chaplain escorted us through a labyrinth of hallways and stairways. Seeing our yarmulkes that identified us as Jews, some prisoners smiled and called out “Shalom.” Others looked at us with hostility or even cursed us. Later I was to learn of the large Neo-Nazi presence in prisons. 

Finally, we reached the chapel where a small group of inmates were waiting for us. Having only limited time with them, we quickly began with prayer. Watching inmates pray was a sight to behold. Knowing their crimes—some of them were serial killers and rapists—it was hard to reconcile the ostensible purity of their prayers with their past. We then moved to group study. Because our visit coincided with the date of the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent Exile, we discussed the nature of exile and redemption. Just as the Jews had survived the Exile for two thousand years with their traditions intact, these Jews could survive their own exile in prison and remain connected to their faith. They seemed to accept the message. We then ended the visit talking individually to the inmates, hearing about their pre-incarceration lives, before we were escorted back to our car. 

Over the next month, we made 29 more such visits. Each prison had its unique characters and experiences. Once, we got stuck in the chapel as a brawl broke out next door. Within seconds, 15 officers locked down the chapel and then charged the other room. For a few tense moments we weren’t sure what was going to happen, but thankfully it was over quickly.

One day, as we were driving on the aforementioned “Loneliest Road in America” and discussing our visits, my colleague and I recognized a pattern about the inmates we visited: most of them had grown up in broken and unhealthy families. Prior to the trip, we had known of the crisis of the American family and its relationship to crime, but only as an abstract number. On average, 35% of American children grow up in single-parent households, and almost twice that number for African-American children, a proven predictor of poverty and crime. Children growing up with drug-addicted, abusive, or incarcerated parents likewise have a higher likelihood of committing crimes. Now, as we could put faces to these numbers, they became real.

Consider the case of Alan (a pseudonym), an inmate we met in Arizona. Alan grew up in a remote area in Alaska with a drug-addicted father. As a child, Alan often witnessed his father beating his mom mercilessly, and this experience undoubtedly shaped his future propensity to commit violent crimes. He was “taught” to be abusive, and even violent, when he didn’t get his way; he knew of no other alternative. One night, as his dad staggered home high on drugs, Alan shot his father to death. Barely eighteen at the time, Alan was sentenced to life in prison. As he recounted his sad story, Alan, now in his thirties, wished that someone would have intervened. Sadly we met many “Alans” on our trip.

The contrast between our own childhoods and that of the inmates we met was striking. Brought up in a devoutly religious community that bred strong, healthy families, we had been formed to be upstanding citizens. For us to have become criminals would have entailed rebelling against everything our parents and community had taught us. These inmates, on the other hand, had been primed for criminality during their childhoods. For them not to have become criminals would have constituted an act of rebellion. My colleague summed it up succinctly: “It’s almost as if they’re destined to be here.”

Certainly, we agreed, there are many who grew up in broken and unhealthy homes who didn’t become criminals—this was undeniable. But it was equally undeniable that children of broken and unhealthy families are vastly overrepresented in the prison population. Our conversations with the inmates revealed just how much their families had negatively impacted them. Many never had a parent or positive role model to lovingly discipline them when they needed it. With no family or community support, a life of crime, drugs, and gangs beckoned.

For many of these children, joining a gang served as a substitute family. Gang members take care of each other and sometimes even live together. A young man without a positive role model at home can find what appears to be a caring group of friends. It is unsurprising, then, that many gang members come from broken families. All too often, though, by the time they realize how dangerous life in the gang is, they’re in too deep.

People and their moral character aren’t formed in a vacuum, I learned. Having a destructive familial or communal influence really did shape the men I met into criminals.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that all unhealthy families are, like Alan’s family, poor or have a drug-addicted parent. As Leo Tolstoy reminds us with the opening words of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There are many types of unhealthy families, some of which don’t fit the classic mold. We learned this lesson when we visited Todd in Arizona.

Todd was different from most of the inmates we met. Like us, he was in his early twenties, and he still had a youthful, almost naive glow on his face. He had grown up the youngest of four siblings in a wealthy, high-achieving family. His older siblings were all Ivy-League graduates who were successful professionals. Todd thus felt a lot of expectations growing up, but no one—not his parents or siblings—showed interest in him as an individual. They all expected him to produce and only gave him love if he did so. Naturally, Todd looked outside his home for love and acceptance; he found it in a local gang. The gang tasked him with delivering drugs, and he did his job well—his self-worth was on the line. A couple of months into this, he was arrested by the police, and he spent a few months in jail. This gave him a much-needed wakeup call to change his ways, and he decided to leave the gang. To give himself a fresh start, Todd decided to move to another city. A couple of weeks later, however, he opened the door to his apartment to find two of his gang members there. They gave him an ultimatum: either come back or die. Faced with no alternative, he rejoined the gang, and that led him to return to prison for a long sentence.

When I first began my chaplaincy tour, I thought of the inmate sitting across from me as an individual, in isolation from his story, family, and community. After all, that’s all I was exposed to—him talking to me. Unsurprisingly, my ability to help the inmate was limited by this; I was missing so much information. By the time I met my final inmate, however, this assumption had been radically changed. People and their moral character aren’t formed in a vacuum, I learned. Having a destructive familial or communal influence really did shape the men I met into criminals. While still not excusing an abdication of personal responsibility, I nevertheless realized that the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” really is true.

This insight shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, I had been raised in a religious community that excelled in building strong family and communal ties. Yet, maybe I needed to be spiritually and geographically distant from my hometown to appreciate what I had. Precisely on the “Loneliest Road in America”—away from family and community—did I first appreciate how important these institutions are.

Since that summer, I have not yet been back to prison. But my experience remains with me. Criminals, like the rest of us, are shaped by their environment, and our communities, criminal justice system, and government need to take that reality more seriously. If our policies reflect that awareness, we can undoubtedly help more young people avoid crime—by bolstering their families and communities or finding better alternatives. No one needs to be destined for prison.

Reader Discussion

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on September 17, 2020 at 12:01:28 pm

Kudos to Jacobson for striking to the heart of instability in America. But I wished he could have included a more comprehensive treatment of the problem of unhealthy families and crime. It isn't just mentally disturbed fathers or calloused parents. It's also fatherless, rudderless children caused by a sad, new normal that teaches it's okay to raise children in improperly supervised single-parent homes in poverty stricken crime-infested ghettos - a theme actually fostered and encouraged by the book he praises, "It Takes a Village."
No, emphatically. Intact families complete with caring natural mothers and fathers should be priority one. Villages are important to be sure. But not the village that compensates for father loss and family instability with angry gun-toting, rudderless teen gangs.
I admire Jacobson for his effort, but I hope he and everyone on this list and beyond, will read David Blankenhorn's book, "Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem" to get a better handle on the problem.
Mike Geanoulis
New Castle, New Hampshire

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on September 17, 2020 at 22:11:44 pm

My initial reaction on reading this essay was one of bemused despair. It is like reading in a leading scientific journal that a researcher has discovered that fire is not edible, or hearing the news that a professor who moved to the forest to prove that bears are no different than fat, furry people, was instead devoured by them. It is astonishing that in the 21st century, the importance of family to human existence is presented as a revelation. It is not as though millennia of experience, tradition, wisdom and assorted failed experiments could not disclose that simple fact on the most cursory of inquiries. Chesterton was quite succinct regarding the importance of the family:

Everyone would admit that it has been the main cell and central unit of almost all societies hitherto. except, indeed, such societies as that of Lacedaemon, which went in for "efficiency," and has, therefore, perished and left not a trace behind."

There is no shortage of "thinkers," such as Melissa Harris-Perry and Hillary Clinton who think that the institution of the family is an impediment to social perfection, and specifically that children are best prepared for society by society. Such thinking is the result of a society becoming too fond of its own effluent. The simple fact is that an optimally functioning society cannot raise a child as well as a well-functioning family. There is no social worker who can replace a committed father, no teacher who can improve upon the affections and attentions of a typical mother. Certainly, children must be socialized to those around them, and society should encourage and sustain those institutions that conduce to doing so, but socialization is not the only part, nor the most important part of flourishing as a human being. There is no institution, whether derived through design or policy or evolution, or divine guidance that is as concerned with the dignity, the worth, and the sacredness of the individual person as much as is the family. It is idiotic to conclude that when the pathologies of society such as substance abuse, infidelity and alienation intrude on the sanctuary of the family that it a shortcoming of the family rather than the fashions and indulgences of the society that produces those pathologies. A village may have a valuable contribution to raising a child, but if it takes a village to raise that child, it is worth asking if there is something fundamentally wrong with the village.

Modern thought, affected as it is by morbid philosophies, malignant politics and loss of reverence for the dignity of humans as unique and irreplaceable individuals, defaults to a gray and empty hopelessness, in which individual experiences of joy, suffering, love, triumph, and loss are subordinated to formless pathologies such as perpetual grievances and narcissism. Emerson was correct in his observation that society recedes on one side as fast as it progresses on the other, "for everything that is given, something is taken." For every concession to indulgence and self-absorption, something is lost.

When the hapless professor gets eaten by the family of cuddly-appearing bears, the mistake is in thinking that the world's overriding principle is the emotional satisfaction of a set of its inhabitants. A certain type of activists views children as simply means to those emotional ends. They believe that the raising of children is best left to the experts in the state, not because children are important in themselves, but because they are useful to the purposes of others. Consequently, they see the institution of the family as an impediment.

To be sure there are dysfunctional families; there are lousy mothers and appalling fathers. These facts should be recognized, but they should not be taken as evidence that there is something inherently deficient in the idea of the family. Some families, like some people need help. Individual families with unique challenges may be improved by the prudent interventions of decent and thoughtful institutions, but this does not by induction suggest that the state is in any way superior to the institution of the family.

The "breakdown of the family" is a real thing, with disastrous consequences. This breakdown is facilitated by stupid, arrogant and malignant policies. These disasters will not be resolved by more intervention but rather by good faith attention to what is lost when the family is denigrated, and which cannot be replaced by other institutions. There is no doubt that social pathologies metastasize where families disintegrate. It does not seem unreasonable to alter a fashionable slogan to reflect this fact:

Black Families Matter Because Black Lives Matter

These things have been known for thousands of years. It is dismaying to think that we act like we have just discovered the importance of two-parent families, or that functional families require sacrifice.

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