The recent shootout at Rimonim Prison involving American-Israeli murderer Samuel Sheinbein is still partly a mystery. An external commission of inquiry is looking in to how the Maryland native smuggled a gun into the jail, which he used to wound three prison guards before he was shot to death on February 23.
But one element is clear. Sheinbein, despite having repeatedly proven that he was dangerous and repeatedly violating prison rules, was granted numerous furloughs – unsupervised vacations – from his sentence: 96 since he was incarcerated in Israel 15 years ago. On his most recent furlough before his death, on February 6, Sheinbein was caught trying to steal a gun from a man in Ramle.
On several occasions, Sheinbein had his furlough privileges revoked by the Prisons Service after violations – including smuggling an MP3 player and a knife into his cell. But he petitioned the High Court of Justice to have them reinstated, and won.
Sheinbein is far from the only Israeli prisoner to abuse his furlough privileges. Last February, Muhammed Yassin, a prisoner who was serving a 20-year-sentence for the stabbing death of Duhadi Arsawan in 2006, slipped across the border into Syria while on his third approved furlough.
Last April, a man from Umm el-Fahm serving a prison sentence for firearms offenses allegedly shot his sister to death while on a prison furlough.
In October of last year, Mahmoud Sharaf, who was convicted in 1991 for murder and aggravated robbery of a security guard at a bank, was finally captured 13 years after he left prison for a furlough. During that time Sharaf married, had four children and was living a quiet life in Nablus.
In 2005, a 17-year-old on furlough from a juvenile detention facility raped and murdered 15-year-old Ma’ayan Sapir in Rehovot.
And the list goes on and on. Sheinbein isn’t even the first inmate to repeatedly abuse his furlough privileges.
That distinction was already infamously awarded to Moshe Ben-Ivgi. In 1994, Ben-Ivgi and Arbel Aloni, both 14, murdered taxi driver Derek Roth in Herzliya in a “thrill killing.” In 1998, not only were they both granted furloughs, but at the same time. The pair used that time to commit an armed robbery together at a grocery store in Herzliya, stabbing a 67-year-old employee there. Six years later, during a furlough inexplicably still granted to him by a court, Ben-Ivgi fled Israel for Argentina, where he remained until he was extradited last year.
The rights of prisoners should be safeguarded in every democracy, and Israel is no different. Prisoners are granted the rights to family visits, educational pursuits and – after serving at least a quarter of their sentence – furloughs. Furloughs – of 24, 48 and even 96 hours – are granted by a panel consisting of a judge, Prisons Service official and a doctor or educator. But even when prisoners prove that they are undeserving of such rights – and denied them by prison officials – they are frequently returned to them by the courts.
In 2004, Rafi Nahmani, serving a life sentence for murder, escaped while on furlough. Two months later he shot Tel Aviv District Court judge Adi Azar to death outside his home. During Nahmani’s second sentencing, the judges wrote that “the acquisition of a guarantee for the release of a prisoner on furlough is too easy.
The time has come for the authorities to be more scrupulous about implementing the regulations regarding the release of prisoners who are a public menace.”
But it seems many judges have not learned even from the tragic death of one of their own. This is not the first time The Jerusalem Post has called for an end to the practice of granting seemingly unsupervised furloughs to violent criminals. But numerous high-profile cases continue to return the issue to the spotlight at least once a year, each time another ostensibly avoidable tragedy unfolds.
It seems the Prisons Service and the courts are incapable of learning from their mistakes, leaving us all ultimately less safe.