It’s not every synagogue speaker who has served two stints in jail for mail fraud.
Then again, it’s not every former prisoner who wants to document the experience of other former prisoners the way Steven Spielberg recorded the memories of her Holocaust survivor parents. And even fewer of those documentary-making former prisoners grew up in Teaneck.
“During my time in prison, I spent every day I could interviewing women about their stories,” Evie Litwok said.
Ms. Litwok will speak at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge on Friday night, November 13.
“Even people who are in prison have human rights, and these rights are being violated,” said Rabbi Paul Jacobson, explaining why he invited her to speak. “Our tradition commands us to treat everyone with respect and dignity.”
“I spent my life in the women’s movement, the gay movement,” said Ms. Litwok, who graduated from Teaneck High School in 1969 and is now living on a friend’s couch in Manhattan. “Nothing radicalized me as much as a week in prison.
“What was stunning for me was how much domestic violence there was” in the stories of her fellow inmates, “how much abuse there was, and the most important thing, how many of these women were not guilty of anything but were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I met a lot of women who lived in small towns in places like Kentucky or Tennessee. If they weren’t working in a grocery store or gas station, they all got high. That was their life, because there was no employment. We’re putting people into prisons who are unemployed and nothing better to do than to get high. We have to show them how to help other people and teach them skills. Just the way we closed psychiatric hospitals 30 years ago, we have to close the prisons and bring them back down to people who pose a threat to society. Non-violent crime does not represent a threat,” she said.
The past 40 years saw a radical growth in the prison population in this country. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has about a quarter of its prisoners. Forty years ago, about 150 people per 100,000 were in prison. In 2012, the figure was 707.
“We have built a system that is not fair, that disproportionately affects black and brown people,” Ms. Litwok said.
Writing in the Atlantic last month, Ta-Nehesi Coates made a strong argument that the disproportionate affect itself was the goal that drove the growth of the American prison system.
“As the civil-rights movement wound down, [Patrick] Moynihan looked out and saw a black population reeling under the effects of 350 years of bondage and plunder,” Mr. Coates wrote. “He believed that these effects could be addressed through state action. They were — through the mass incarceration of millions of black people.”
Ms. Litwok said, “In prison, what you see are black people, poor people, brown people. Nobody who is in prison is high up on any kind of food chain. They’re all people who couldn’t afford any kind of attorney. They pled guilty for fear that instead of 10 years would have to spend life in jail.
“The latest figures is that some 100 million people have been convicted of some kind of crimes; misdemeanors or felonies. We have 2.3 million people in prison. We have 12 million in American jails in a year — much shorter sentences but a lot of people. There are 5.9 million on supervised release. under the control of the Department of Justice. I’m one of those people. I have three years of probation. It adds up to 20 million people under some kind of control during a given year,” she said.
Ms. Litwok wants to use the tools she used as a graduate student in Holocaust studies to look at America’s prison system.
“It’s important to memorialize America’s 40 years of mass incarceration. People don’t understand what we did,” she said.
“I want to create a digital library for the formerly incarcerated. My little contribution would be if you could see the faces and hear the stories, and understand that not only are we jailing and incarcerating people, we are incarcerating their families. One of the most striking things was women reading out loud the letters their children sent them,” she said.
As a Jewish woman, Ms. Litwok has some atypical stories from her years in prison. “Being Jewish in prison is an experience in and of itself, because there are not many of us,” she said.
She wore a star of David — inmates are allowed religious jewelry — and that often led to the question: “What is a Jew?”
“There wasn’t a day that I didn’t have to answer the question at least six times why I didn’t believe in Jesus Christ. You have to be careful about your answers. You can’t be a wise guy. In prison, nobody is really your friend, but you can’t afford to have enemies. If you offend someone your life in prison can be miserable. People would say to me, ‘Have a blessed day and pray to Jesus’ because they knew I wasn’t praying to Jesus.”
And then there were the women who “converted” to Judaism for the chicken soup.
“There were really only nine or ten Jewish women. On Passover you could get a little box of matzah, some chocolate, and go to a seder. Thirty-five people converted to Judaism on their paperwork. When we went to have a seder, it was hilarious. There were nine Jews and 35 Jews who converted for the chicken soup. Me and three other women who knew Hebrew did the services in Hebrew and everybody was clapping afterward like we were doing a Broadway show. They got to get out in the evening for a three-hour dinner and service. That was a big perk.
“Then they converted to Islam for Ramadan,” she said.
Ms. Litwok said she had no idea what being in prison would entail.
“You can see ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ 300 times, and it’s not reality until you walk through the prison door,” she said. “When you hear the door close behind you, it only takes a couple of hours to realize what the losing of freedom means.
“You go from being a free person where you can speak your mind and walk your dog and go anywhere to having to follow a set of rules that are for the most part unreasonable. You don’t have any rights to make any choices about anything.”
But being freed from prison doesn’t mean that you can start with a clean slate, your debt to society paid.
“There’s no way for anyone to have a normal life after prison,” she said. “The two things you need to survive are housing and a job and you can’t get either. If they do a background check on you and find you were in prison, you won’t get an apartment. If you don’t have a family that’s going to support you” — Ms. Litwok’s family cut ties with her — “you’re homeless or, anecdotally, there’s a lot of suicide.”
“It’s very gratifying that the Jewish community is beginning to see prison reform as an issue,” Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck said.
Rabbi Kahn-Troster is director of programs at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which began a campaign last year to educate the Jewish community on ending mass incarceration. The campaign grew out of the group’s work on ending torture, which has morphed into a fight against solitary confinement in prison.
Ending solitary confinement is still at the center of T’ruah’s prison reform efforts.
“Solitary confinement has been called torture by the United Nations,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “It begins to drive people crazy. It leads to physical and mental degeneration very quickly. It doesn’t lead to people’s rehabilitation.
“The people most likely to be in solitary are those who have the hardest time in prison, like the mentally ill. We imagine it’s the punishment for your crime, the worst for the worst. The reality is that most people end up in solitary confinement because they’ve broken a prison rule. It could be something as little has having too many stamps.
“In California, people have been in solitary for decades. Juveniles can end up in solitary. People are shocked to learn that people who are in pretrial detention can end up in solitary. We shouldn’t be doing that to people,” she said.
“Look at Kalief Browder,” Ms. Litwok said. “He was on Riker’s Island, 16 years old, accused of stealing a backpack, was in prison for three years without a trial. He was detained because he couldn’t afford bail. They put him in solitary for a thousand days. When he came out he killed himself. and it turned out he hadn’t stolen the backpack.”
Rabbi Kahn-Troster said that “we’re beginning to see a sea change. People are seeing that the point of incarceration should be to rehabilitate people. Most people who go to prison come back to our communities. What does it mean if they come back in worse shape than when they left?”
The question “is like a giant mountain,” an imposing challenge, she said. “On the other hand, since so much change is happening, we feel we can chip away at the mountain in a way that makes a difference,” she said.
T’ruah has called on New Jersey residents to show their support for a state bill, introduced last year, that would curtail the use of solitary confinement.
“It will take a while to get through,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said.
Ms. Litwok said that “people need to demand alternatives to incarceration. My alternative is community service. Let them work for nonprofit charities. Let them staff a food bank.
“Most of the bank robbers I met were kids who had a Bonnie-and-Clyde idea. It was just stupidity. Let them help people.”