A Torah-study program developed by the Aleph Institute has been officially recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an approved evidence-based recidivism-reduction option for inmates and will count towards consideration for early release as part of the Justice Department’s First Step Act.

Federal inmates taking “Sparks of Light” correspondence classes will be able to earn credit of up to 15 days towards early release for every 30 days of study. Participants can choose from a slate of more than 30 classes designed for students with a wide range of Jewish knowledge—from “The Bible for the Clueless, but Curious” for incarcerated individuals who are just curious about Judaism to “Aseres HaDibros,” an in-depth exploration of the Ten Commandments for those with a stronger background in Judaic study.

The Chabad-Lubavitch affiliated Aleph Institute, the leading Jewish organization caring for the incarcerated and their families, praised the Bureau of Prisons for ensuring that faith-based programs are available for those who want them.

It was joined in its advocacy efforts by Rabbi Moshe Margaretten of the Tzedek Association. Both organizations have been on the front lines of changing how the criminal justice system deals with people in prison.

“There’s no greater rehabilitation and self-improvement than learning Torah,” wrote Margaretten. “And so, it’s a no-brainer that Torah courses should be considered ‘productive activity’ under the First Step Act. It was indeed an honor to work on this together with Aleph Institute.”

Rabbi Berel Paltiel, director of advocacy for the Aleph Institute, told Chabad.org that “there’s no question that when someone connects with their faith, and connects with their soul and learns about themselves and their purpose in the world, it can lead to dramatic, significant changes.”

By studying and learning Torah, he said, “inmates are also learning about themselves and what they are doing in this world. It’s critically important.”

The First Step Act of 2018 provides federal inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses with the opportunity to earn time credit towards their prison sentence by participating in “evidence-based recidivism reduction programs and productive activities.”

Incarceration a Time for Reflection and Personal Growth

Paltiel noted that the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory—believed that people who were convicted of a crime should spend time in reflection and improving themselves.

There is no concept of prison in the Torah, the Rebbe taught, “because the idea of just taking away someone’s time has no moral, ethical or productive value, and that’s how many inmates view prison,” said Paltiel.

In that case, he asked, what is the value of incarceration?

By devoting time to learning and trying to better oneself, he added, “prison becomes a time of reflection and growth. It’s about being a better person and learning from your mistakes, and that changes the whole time a person spends in prison.”

According to Rabbi Yossi Cohen of the Aleph Institute, in order for Torah classes to count for a prisoner’s time credit, they have to reflect and address issues relating towards combating recidivism and being a productive member of society. That meant developing classes that could, for instance, include lessons on anger management or parenting.

Currently, 194 Jewish inmates in federal prisons nationwide are taking the “Sparks of Light” correspondence classes as part of the First Step Act program.

Overall, there are more than 1,200 men and women enrolled in Aleph’s 32 courses, and approximately 8,000 people have participated over the years.

One of those participants had been considering suicide when he began the classes. As he told the Aleph Institute in a letter:

“I was in a very dark place when I requested the courses. Hashem [G‑d] had it delivered exactly on time. … The toll of the past seven years, on my wife, children and grandchildren, had reached the point where I felt I could no longer bear another day. I read … through [the course material] several times that night, by the light in my doorway. By morning I realized the great wrong I had been about to do and flushed the pills down the toilet.

“My life,” he wrote, “is not mine to throw away.”