Isolation didn’t help Jonah find redemption inside the whale. It isn’t helping thousands of American prisoners today, either.
Preparing this year for Yom Kippur, I began to study the Book of Jonah, traditionally read on the afternoon of the holiday, for insight into our country’s current use of solitary confinement. After all, Jonah is perhaps the most famous solitary prisoner of all time. And at first blush it might seem that his (short) stay in solitary—inside a whale—was pretty good for him. It turns out, though, that even Jonah didn’t find redemption in solitary confinement.
The story of Jonah is ancient, but it addresses a topic with real contemporary urgency. At last count, 80,000 American prisoners were locked in solitary confinement. In California this summer, long-term solitary provoked a hunger strikeof tens of thousands of prisoners; it ended a week ago, with dozens of prisoners having refused to eat for two entire months, after the California legislature promisedhearings. Strikers sought more humane and less isolating conditions—better food, access to sunlight, more individualized decision-making about their continued stay in Special Housing Units. Does Jonah have anything to say about the best response to those demands?
Jonah’s first chapter tells us about God’s call to the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh—an enormous, distant, and non-Jewish city—and inform the Ninevites of the errors of their ways. But Jonah does not do what prophets do. He does not answer God in words; he does not inveigh or argue. He simply disobeys, running away as fast and far as he can. He hires a ship to Tarshish, at the other end of the Mediterranean. On the ship, too, Jonah declines the prophetic role of speaking to God. As all the sailors cry out to their gods to save them from the deadly storm that threatens, he sleeps. Even when the lots are cast and it is apparent that he is the source of the storm, he explains to his shipmates what is going on but does not deign to pray, or even talk, to God. He has them throw him into the water, and when he is in the water, drowning, again he fails to seek salvation, intercession, explanation.
But then things change, the text tells us: “God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord, his God, from the belly of the fish.” So we learn from the Book of Jonah the possibility, the aspiration, that stress and discomfort, hopelessness and fear can lead to some kind of redemption. Jonah uses his three days alone with his conscience to good effect. He ends them with obedience in two ways: First, he re-embraces his relationship with God, by calling out in prayer to him. And second, he goes to Nineveh, as commanded.
This episode and text shed light on the modern prison practice of solitary confinement—isolating prisoners alone in a cell the size of a parking space for 23 hours a day, with an hour, still alone, in an “exercise yard” (a shed-sized, ceiling-less room of concrete, open to the sky and elements but often with no ability to see out, except above). Prisoners and their keepers call this kind of confinement “seg” (for segregation) or “the box” or the SHU (Special Housing Unit). The original impetus for seg housing, used by the Quakers in the nation’s first prison, in Philadelphia, was to provide time and occasion for thought and repentance—the very way that the whale’s belly worked for Jonah. Modern prison segregation, however, has a different theory. It’s premised more on ideas about contagion and control; fear that the “worst of the worst” prisoners will harm others if not isolated, and that the just punishment for noncompliance within prison is to make conditions harsher, sentencing offending inmates to a prison within a prison.
So, how does this work, in practice? We learn from countless witnesses, voices from inside solitary confinement, that Jonah’s hope, and his deliverance to a life of purpose, are atypical responses to isolation. How do most people react to isolation, to the modern belly of the whale? Here’s one account, from Cesar Francisco Villa, a California prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for 11 years. What he writes is worth quoting at some length:
Nothing can really prepare you for entering the SHU. It’s a world unto itself where cold, quiet, and emptiness come together seeping into your bones, then eventually the mind.
The first week I told myself: It isn’t that bad, I could do this. The second week, I stood outside in my underwear shivering as I was pelted with hail and rain. By the third week, I found myself squatting in a corner of the yard, filing fingernails down over coarse concrete walls. My sense of human decency dissipating with each day. … My sense of normalcy began to wane after just 3 years of confinement. Now I was asking myself, can I do this? Not sure about anything anymore. Though I didn’t realize it at the time—looking back now—the unraveling must’ve begun then. My psyche had changed—I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me, as easily as if it was a simple shift of wind sifting over tired, battered bones.
There’s a definite split in personality when good turns to evil. The darkness that looms above is thick, heavy, and suffocating. A snap so sharp, the echo is deafening. A sound so loud you expect to find blood leaking from your ears at the bleakest moment.
The waking is the most traumatic. From the moment your bare feet graze the rugged stone floor, your face begins to sag, knuckles tighten—flashing pale in the pitch of early morning. The slightest slip in a quiet dawn can set a SHU personality into a tailspin: If the sink water is not warm enough, the toilet flushes too loud, the drop of a soap dish, a cup. … In an instant you bare teeth, shake with rage. Your heart hammers against ribs, lodges in your throat. You are capable of killing anything at this moment. Flash attack; a beating, any violent outburst that will release rage.
This would be the time it’s best to hold rigid. Take a deep breath. Try to convince yourself there’s an ounce of good left in you. This is not a portrait you wish anyone to see. And then a gull screeches passing outside—another tailspin and you’re checking your ears for blood.
And this is a good day.
Some extremely resilient prisoners can survive even long-term solitary confinement with their minds and souls whole, almost unscathed. But for many, perhaps most, isolation—and the featureless, purposeless life that accompanies it—is deeply damaging. Yet today, we impose this state, this harm, on tens of thousands of prisoners. The Michigan prison system has over a thousand prisoners in long-termsegregation. In our national experiment of mass incarceration, we are not only imprisoning more people than any nation ever has before—over 20 percent of the world’s current prisoners—we are housing more of them in segregation, for longer periods of time than has ever been attempted. We should be unsurprised if few or none experience Jonah’s positive response.
Menachem Begin in December 1942 wearing the Polish Army uniform of Gen. Anders’ forces with his wife Aliza and David Yutan; (back row) Moshe Stein and Israel Epstein
(photo credit: JABOTINSKY ARCHIVES)
During the inauguration of a memorial to the victims of the Siege of Leningrad in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park on January 24, 2020, before the climax of Holocaust remembrance events at which Russian President Vladimir Putin was given a central platform, we were stunned to hear a rendition of The Blue Kerchief (Siniy
Giant figures are seen during the 87th carnival parade of Aalst February 15, 2015
The annual carnival in Aalst, Belgium, is expected to take place on Sunday with even more antisemitic elements than in previous years.
Aalst’s organizers have sold hundreds of “rabbi kits” for revelers to dress as hassidic Jews in the carnival’s parade. The kit includes oversized noses, sidelocks (peyot) and black hats. The organizers plan to bring back floats similar to the one displayed in 2019 featuring oversized dolls of Jews, with rats on their shoulders, holding banknotes.
Pope Francis waves as he arrives at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in the southern Italian coastal city of Bari, Italy February 23, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Remo Casilli.
Pope Francis on Sunday warned against “inequitable solutions” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying they would only be a prelude to new crises, in an apparent reference to US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace proposal.
Francis made his comments in the southern Italian port city of Bari, where he traveled to conclude a meeting of bishops from all countries in the Mediterranean basin.
Palestinians walk past a shop selling fruits in Ramallah, Feb. 20, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Mohamad Torokman.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have reached an agreement to end a five-month long trade dispute, officials said on Thursday.
The dispute, which opened a new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, began in September when the PA announced a boycott of Israel calves. The PA exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank under interim peace deals.
Antisemitic caricatures on display at the annual carnival in Aalst, Belgium. Photo: Raphael Ahren via Twitter.
Disturbing images emerged on Sunday of the annual carnival at Aalst, Belgium, showing an astounding number of antisemitic themes, costumes, displays and statements.
Israeli journalist Raphael Ahren documented people dressed as caricatures of Orthodox Jews, a fake “wailing wall” attacking critics of the parade, blatantly antisemitic characters and puppets wearing traditional Jewish clothes and sporting huge noses.
The stench of anti-Semitism always hovers over Switzerland’s Lake Geneva when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is meeting there. The foul emanations reached a new nadir last week with UNHRC’s publication of a “database” of companies doing business in the disputed territories in Israel.
Following the publication of the list, Bruno Stagno Ugarte, deputy director for advocacy of NGO Human Rights Watch, stated, “The long-awaited release of the U.N. settlement business database should put all companies on notice: To do business with illegal settlements [sic] is to aid in the commission of war crimes.”
One of the many things that annoys me about politicians is how sure they are of themselves. Everything is black and white. Every idea is good or bad. Take globalism, for example. You either love it or hate it. It works or it doesn’t.
Another thing that annoys me is how so much of a politician’s life revolves around power: Do everything you can to get it, and everything you can to keep it.
Why am I ranting? Because, while our politicians have been consumed with power and the media with the fights over power, a threat to our nation has been virtually ignored.
Blue and White Party leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid are establishing their diplomatic credentials in the immediate run-up to Israel’s March 2 election with an insult to a U.S. administration that has arguably provided Israel with more diplomatic gains than any previous administration.
The Times of Israel reported that at a campaign stop in front of English-speaking Israelis, Gantz accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “of neglecting bipartisan ties in favor of exclusive support from U.S. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party,” under the headline “Gantz pledges to mend ties with U.S. Democrats if elected.”
Bipartisanship was in short supply at the State of the Union address earlier this month—with one notable exception.
Nancy Pelosi had been looking dyspeptic, shuffling the papers she would later rip to shreds, when President Donald Trump reminded his audience that “the United States is leading a 59-nation diplomatic coalition against the socialist dictator of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.”
Suddenly, the House Speaker applauded. Trump then introduced “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela: Juan Guaidó.”
The law professor Alan Dershowitz has thrown a legal hand-grenade into America’s political civil war by claiming to have evidence that former President Barack Obama “personally asked” the FBI to investigate someone “on behalf” of Obama’s “close ally,” billionaire financier George Soros.
He made his cryptic remark in an interview defending U.S. President Donald Trump against claims he interfered in the prosecution of his former adviser, Roger Stone.