(Photo-Justin Elson-Flickr Commons)
(Photo/JTA-Justin Elson-Flickr Commons)

Jewish approach to mental health crises is ‘Care First, Jail Last’

Imagine you or someone you love is having a mental health crisis, and you call 911. The sheriff’s department, which responds to your call, also runs the county jail … and, to your horror, you (or your loved one) end up in custody.

This is our current model: People needing health care end up in jail rather than getting the medical care they need.

Without adequate community-based mental health care services, the police — and the jail — get involved. We’re all at risk of being jailed for a mental health crisis.

But what if we had a “Care First, Jail Last” model, instead?

As members of the Tikkun Olam Leadership Team at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, we and our fellow congregants are engaged as allies in the campaign to place “care first, jail last” in Alameda County.

Similar “Care First, Jail Last” campaigns are happening elsewhere in the Bay Area and California. In May 2021, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a Care First resolution calling for a paradigm shift — from incarceration to a continuum of care — to minimize the number of people experiencing mental health crises who are jailed.

Now we face a long and far more difficult battle to get the supervisors to put real funding behind those goals.

In supporting this campaign, we act in alignment with our Jewish values. The prophet Isaiah taught that God wants us to “rescue prisoners from confinement, [and] from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)

In Talmudic times, mental illness and the suffering it inflicted were often understood as possession by demons or evil spirits. (Rosh HaShanah 28a)

Demons, evil spirits and the depths of extreme poverty — the Talmud demands that we “request mercy for people who suffer from those problems.” (Eruvin 41b)

And rather than incarcerating people in mental anguish, the Talmud says “one should push anguish out of mind” and “tell others of the concerns.” (Yoma 75a) Imprisonment was not even considered as a response.

Throughout the ages and up until modern times, Jewish thinking has long recognized the failure of imprisonment to bring about healing. The prophets encouraged us to free the captive.

Throughout the ages and up until modern times, Jewish thinking has long recognized the failure of imprisonment to bring about healing.

More recently, Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi, former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yafo, wrote: “[E]xperience proves that imprisonment does not rehabilitate the criminal … In addition to this, it also causes further harm after their release from prison. … The holy perspective on human freedom and the social nature of the human being, created in the image of God, [is] that no other person has the right to confine the human spirit, or a person’s freedom of movement, or their freedom, which are holy of holies among all creations in the image of God.”

Our tradition teaches with clarity that when it comes to people in mental health crises, jails are not an appropriate approach.

Modern societies have come to depend more and more on incarceration to address the needs of people in mental health crises, despite plenty of awareness that this makes problems even worse.

Last April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced findings, preliminary to a possible lawsuit against Alameda County, calling out the county’s appalling failure to provide resources to serve its mentally ill citizens in the community.

According to the report, based on data from the jail itself (Santa Rita Jail in Dublin), some 40% percent of the people incarcerated there are listed as in need of mental health care, and 20% to 25% have a serious mental illness.

As outlined by the DOJ, in jail they are even less likely to get the care they need. As a result, many end up in long-term isolation known as “administrative detention.”

According to the report, half of all people held in isolation suffer from a mental illness, and some 75% of those held in isolation spend more than 90 days there.

The consensus in our community (not a common thing) is that incarcerating people in mental crises is inhumane and ineffective.

Unfortunately, centuries of this practice are not easy to shake off.

Funding has not followed the Alameda supervisors’ commitment, and the settlement of a major lawsuit against the Santa Rita Jail (Babu vs. Ahern) threatens to lock up tens of millions more dollars in jail-based staff, rather than funding community resources.

We call upon the Board of Supervisors to fund and support community-based mental health services in Alameda County.

And we invite others across the Jewish community to support “Care First, Jail Last” throughout our nine-county Greater Bay Area.

Together we can solve these problems if we embrace Torah values and reject isolation and punishment of those needing mental health services.

Rabbi Harry A. Manhoff, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Leandro, and Beth El member Nancy Turak contributed to this essay. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Jonathan Simon
Jonathan Simon

Jonathan Simon is a professor of criminal justice law at Berkeley Law.

Rahel Smith
Rahel Smith

Rahel Smith is a leadership coach and a human resources consultant. She is a member of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and Or Zarua Reconstructionist Havurah of the East Bay.