Israel’s prison system is one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Doubtless this is in part because of the security risk posed by the sub-population of politically sensitive prisoners. But that’s not the only reason. It also represents a primordial black hole of Israeli social injustice.
Handcuffs (illustrative photo) Photo: Reuters
Israel’s prison system is one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Doubtless this
is in part because of the security risk posed by the sub-population of
politically sensitive prisoners. But that’s not the only reason. It also
represents a primordial black hole of Israeli social injustice.
police service, and the medical service, it is grossly under-funded and
under-professionalized. It is expensive to punish, but it is more expensive to
rehabilitate. Also, punishment requires only moral (and in an ideal
world, religious) justification, whereas rehabilitation also requires scientific
It is intuitively held that punishment operates as a
deterrent. There is little to substantiate and much evidence to challenge that
claim. It is equally hard to validate the efficacy of rehabilitation, at least
as presently conceived. The outcome statistics for prison rehabilitation
programs are alarmingly poor, yet prisons slavishly adhere to rehabilitation, of
a kind, because it is intuitive to do so.
But rehabilitation is only as
good as the programs that purport to implement it. The local gold standard is
based in social work. Even were that the ideal, standards are poor. In-house
evaluation does not meet the most basic scientific standards. And it is not
ideal, for it is generally biased towards re-entry, as conceived by social
science, based in social work, criminology and penology. It does not seriously
take into account psychology, medicine or religion. Nor does it effectively
shadow the progress of the prisoner through his or her prison sentence, from
entry to exit.
What is the answer? Israel’s is no different from prison
services around the world; 90 percent of those incarcerated could be more
gainfully dealt with, both in terms of benefit to society and to the individual
and his or her victims, by some form of community service combined with
scientifically-based rehabilitation. A core of about 10% stretches our resources
beyond the imaginable, and probably these individuals should be segregated from
society on a semi-permanent or permanent basis.
To persuade governments
and their Ministries of Justice and Judiciary to take the path of social
rehabilitation over punishment and social exclusion would require nothing short
of a Galilean revolution. There’s the rub.
So what is the answer? Given
that, for the foreseeable future, there is little likelihood of liberating the
90% of offenders to more socially useful occupations, albeit under some kind of
community surveillance, we must still try to rehabilitate all 100%.
can we improve their outcomes? In principle, the solution is surprisingly
simple. It lies in reversing the shift in idiom that occurs when
offenders transfer from the domain of the judicial system to the domain of the
penal system. In the former, the idiom is one of right and wrong, one of
morality. In the latter, in its rehabilitative aspect, it becomes one of social
or anti-social, of mad more than bad. That is, it adopts the idiom of
psychological and social science rather than the idiom of morals, or
This fact is not lost on most prisoners, who have a healthy
disregard for the soft sciences. You cannot pull the wool over their eyes so
easily. They know that, either rightly or wrongly judged, their incarceration is
based in philosophical issues more than the psychosocial. It is not surprising
therefore that rehabilitation programs based in cognitive-behavioral therapy
and in psychodynamic social work practice, as most are, show equivocal or
negative results. Whether they focus on reduction of anger and violence, or on
mitigation of sexual misconduct, in so far as they avoid the moral, and dare I
say, the spiritual dimension, they stand to show either no improvement or they
stand to fail.
I am not about to advocate cessation of these psychosocial
approaches to rehabilitation. Rather I believe that to ensure success
they must be combined with moral and spiritual interventions. This, of course,
is against the zeitgeist both in the professional and in the wider societal
domain. Yet, professional criminologists and penologists are beginning to throw
their hands up in the air with regard to the poor showing of traditional, purely
“scientific” approaches to rehabilitation.
At two prisons in the north of
the country, one of which is specifically designated for rehabilitation,
programs are in the process of design which incorporate religion into psychology
and social work. These programs will be suitably supervised and scientifically
evaluated. The results will be shared with other prisons both national and
internationally. That, we believe, is the way to go.
The author was
trained in medicine and psychiatry in London in the 1960s and 1970s, ran the
psychiatric residency training program at Hadassah University Medical Center,
Jerusalem during the 1980s, he is working on a book; Suicide in Jewish History
and the Holocaust for the Edwin Mellen Press.