A Prison for the Not Guilty
by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser
Not long after I arrived in Florida, a congregant told me about the Treatment Center where he works as an administrator, a place for people whom the criminal justice system has deemed to be mentally ill or mentally incompetent. He asked me if I would be willing to visit the Center to talk with its few Jewish residents. I told my new congregant that I would be honored to help his residents.
There was a long process before I could be approved to volunteer at the Center. I made my first trip to visit its residents during Passover last month. I visited again today, meeting with three adult Jewish men who have been found “not guilty by reason of insanity” (NGRI) by a Florida State Court.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about the insanity defense and what happens to people who are determined to be not responsible for their actions due to mental illness. Many people believe that defendants who are found NGRI are allowed to walk out of the courtroom and reenter normal society. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The three men I met with today all have been charged with violent crimes. After being found NGRI, they were sent to the Treatment Center, or other similar facilities. Technically, the Center is not a prison, but it might as well be one. It is a maximum security facility with lots of guards, lots of tall fences with razor wire, and lots of heavy metal doors that can only be opened by a security guard watching over a video monitor. Trying to escape is a bad idea. The facility is surrounded by nothing but miles of flat land with little cover, and plenty of alligators and poisonous snakes.
The biggest difference between this facility and a prison is that the residents (that’s what they call them) receive psychotherapy and medications to treat their illnesses. They also receive training on how the legal system works. This is especially important for residents who have been determined to be “not competent to proceed to trial” (NCP). The goal of the Treatment Center is to make them competent, so the Center teaches them about the charges they face in court, what those charges mean, and how the court system will deal with them.
It is understandable that the three Jewish men with whom I met today are not very happy about being in the Treatment Center. They are glad not to be in a state prison, where there is more violence and where their mental health problems would go mostly untreated. Their fondest hope is to be transferred to a lower security facility, or, even better, to a halfway house where they could begin a transition to freedom. That day could come in a few years for some of them, maybe sooner, or maybe never. Not knowing how long they will have to wait for freedom is very difficult for them.
I spent about an hour with the men today. We talked about this week’s Torah portion (Behar-Bechukotai), especially the part about how all Hebrew slaves in ancient Israel were released during the jubilee, which came every fifty years. The idea of having a definite date of liberation, even one many years in the future, would be appealing to these men.
I also answered their questions about Judaism. For the most part, they asked the same types of questions I hear all the time from people who want to know more about Judaism. One resident asked me if the tattoo on his shoulder would prevent his body from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. (No, that’s a myth.) Another resident asked, “When did Israel last have a Jewish king?” (First century c.e.). “Could there ever be another king of Israel?” (Depends on whom you ask).
The conversation got to be the most interesting when we talked about divine reward and punishment. It is not surprising that these men wanted to know what Judaism teaches about God’s punishment for sin. Does Judaism teach that sinners are punished with hellfire? Why do good people suffer in this lifetime? Do we live in a just universe? Does God not care about the suffering of the innocent?
If you are sitting in a prison after the state has told you that you are not guilty and that you are not responsible for your actions, these questions become rather poignant, wouldn’t you say? People with mental health problems often feel like they live in a metaphoric prison—held captive by a mind that inhibits normal interaction with other people, distrusted and scorned by people who fear them. In addition to that, these men live in a real live realty of razor wire and locked doors. Well, it’s enough to make anyone crazy.
Clearly, the Treatment Center is the right place for these men, even if it is depressing for them to be confined without much freedom. They are receiving treatment for their illnesses. They are safe. They are being cared for by a professional staff that treats them with courtesy and all the dignity possible under the circumstances. They even get visits from local clergy, if that helps.
Still, no one would volunteer or choose to live in the Treatment Center. According to the state of Florida, these men did not willfully choose to do the things that got them here. Yet, here they are. And, I have to add, it’s a good thing, too.
Do we live in a just universe? I’m not sure anyone can answer that question for these men. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to help people who could really use some.
Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser is the rabbi of Temple Beit HaYam in in Stuart, FL.
Originally posted at Reb Jeff.