The very first thing we learn from the Torah about human beings is that we’re made in the image of God. We’re taught in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis:
And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness … ” And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God. (Gen. 1:26–27)
And this is indeed a great blessing. The rabbinic text Pirkei Avot has Rabbi Akiva elaborate, “Beloved is humanity for they were created in the image [of God]. Especially beloved is the one for whom it was made known to them that they had been created in the image [of God].” (Pirkei Avot 3:14)
However, the Torah also sees our bearing of the image of God as assigning us an enormous amount of responsibility to one another. After the flood, God tells Noah and his sons, in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds human blood, by human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed; for in the image of God was humankind made.” (The nuances of the Jewish legal system show that we should not literally punish people with bloodshed, but the heaviness here should stay with us.)
Here we see that there is just about no insult to God as bad as the infringing on the human dignity of others, as it is also an attack on God. There are many ways in which someone can tarnish the image of God, but one obviously egregious offense is the use of private, for-profit prisons. I’d like to explain why.
If we take the image of God seriously, we know what a tragedy it is when society needs to incarcerate a human being — to take them away from their family, to take away their freedom and to put them in a system that, disturbingly, will likely lead them to a life of further crime and hardship. We must see, then, that it is terribly immoral for a person to make a profit off of the captivity of a human being. In 2020, almost 100,000 people were held in American private prisons. We cannot stand for a society in which it is in the interest of corporations to have high rates of crime and recidivism. One might wonder whether some for-profit prisons are simply not interested in rehabilitation and successful re-entry into society because they may want inmates to return back behind bars.
We are fortunate that the American government has begun to understand this. In January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order preventing the renewal of private-prison contracts at the federal level. However, there is much work to be done, as about half of states allow private prisons within their own justice systems.
My state of Arizona is one of them, which led me to sign onto a letter with other local faith leaders to tell my governor:
The status of the jailer matters. Profit will always be the first priority of prison corporations. Private prison corporations thrive on mass incarceration, more criminalization, longer sentencing and high rates of recidivism – all of which are contrary to the public interest and fall most heavily on the poor, people of color, immigrants, and people with mental illnesses. One company currently under contract with Arizona even states in its public SEC filings that one of its “key performance indicators” is a “compensated man day”—the amount of money generated by each incarcerated person per day. That same corporation touted the nation’s “high recidivism” rates as a reason to invest, and described criminal justice reform as a risk to its shareholders.
As Jews called to work for a better world, we must envision a messianic dream of a society in which we don’t need to imprison any human. In the meantime, the least we can do is refuse to make a profit from locking people up.