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.