French opposition MP Georges Fenech at Ofer Prison, September 15, 2016.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Generally speaking, what goes on behind prison walls in Israel is not shared with the public, Prisons Service Commissioner Ofra Klinger said on Thursday, but in view of the success stories coming out of Ofek’s education and rehabilitation programs, and ahead of Yom Kippur, which is dedicated to repentance and forgiveness, the service, in cooperation with the President’s Office, decided to hold a seminar.
The Ofek detention center at Sharon Prison is the country’s only detention facility for offenders under the age of 18.
The event, which was held at the President’s Residence on Thursday, helped to shed some light on the work of the Prisons Service, she said.
While it is the duty of the Prisons Service to respect all prisoners as human beings, to protect their dignity and to provide them with safe and proper custody, Klinger said, it is of paramount importance to encourage them to reach their potential as well, so that they can be integrated into society once they leave prison.
“We have to find the person beneath the guise of an offender, and look into his background to determine what led him to a life of crime.” Only then, she said, can work begin in rehabilitating each individual. “Not every person can pass the test,” she acknowledged, “but our test is to see if we have given them the right tools, and society’s test is to see if they can be integrated. But the ultimate test is that of the prisoner, to see if he can really change.”
Three boys from bad neighborhoods and poor families spoke of how someone suddenly taking interest in them, and noticing them and their needs, had made each of them rethink his options for the future.
They regard Ofek as more of a school than a detention center, and they are grateful to their teachers and social workers for their patience and faith in them, and for instilling them with hope and motivation.
Ofek has helped those with minimal schooling to complete high school.
Dan Hafetz, who runs a program aimed at rehabilitating junior offenders to make them eligible for the Israel Defense Forces, said each time he meets a new group, he asks its members to describe to him how to break into a house. Listening to them enables him to test their creativity, courage, ingenuity and ability to confront the unknown. He then asks them to come up with something other than breaking into a house, and almost invariably they come up with “breaking into” a normal life.
For him, that’s the first step toward rehabilitation.
A graduate of this program spoke of how he had always been a problem child, shunted from one school to another and from a foster home to a boarding school, and how that was the last stop before prison. All that changed when he was put in solitary confinement, where he had nothing to do but think. He wanted to turn his life around and join the army, but after looking at his record, the army didn’t want him.
He kept knocking on doors, including those of the IDF chief of staff and the defense minister. Eventually, the army gave him a chance and took him in at age 22. He became a model of military discipline, because he hoped to be a combat soldier and to be sent to the Golani Brigade. Instead, he was sent to the Givati Brigade, where he proved himself and was invited to enroll in a commander’s course.
After completing the course, he was given command of a platoon, and afterward he was sent to an officer’s course.
He continues to serve in the reserves, and he has built up a business for himself and raised a family. He returns to Ofek once a month to tell his story to the boys and to demonstrate what they, too, could become.
President Reuven Rivlin observed that while the concept of forgiveness is wonderful, it is not easy to ask for forgiveness, nor is it always easy to forgive. “And yet, a society without forgiveness is not a humane society,” he said. “It is a society in which we are doomed to be forever chained to the past, without the possibility of looking to the future.”
The authority to demonstrate compassion and forgiveness is one that is vested in the president, he said, in reference to pardons and the commuting of sentences.