Rehabilitating criminals

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.

September 19, 2012 22:48
4 minute read.
Handcuffs (illustrative photo)

Handcuffs (illustrative photo) 370. (photo credit: Reuters)


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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.

Like the 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 validation.

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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%.

How 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 ethics.

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.

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