Protection in prison

Protection in prison

September 30, 2009 20:32
3 minute read.

When some detainees or convicts sentence themselves to death, there are those who may tacitly agree with the self-inflicted penalty. Thus when Assaf Goldring - charged with murdering his three-year-old daughter - took his life on Yom Kippur, a widespread opinion, maybe even the prevalent unspoken opinion, was a certain approval that he had meted out to himself the capital punishment that courts in other lands may well have handed down for the cold-blooded homicide of a helpless toddler. Similarly, when popular entertainer Dudu Topaz strangled himself with an electric kettle cord in August, there were doubtless those who reasoned that this was the appropriate ending. Unable to cope with the collapse of his career, Topaz had, appallingly, commissioned the battery of the showbiz executives he blamed for stymieing his career, and now faced many years behind bars, disgraced. It may even be asked whether we, as a collective, possess the right to deny someone in such circumstances the right to implement said self-sentencing. Is it more moral to keep a prisoner alive against his will and subject him to what may subjectively be viewed as greater torment than death? We cannot pass judgment here on such philosophical predicaments. The moral concern should be kept in mind, however: It is possible - just as in the case of a court-imposed capital punishment, deemed inhumane in many societies and eschewed by Israel - that the wrong persons may lose their lives. Mistakes occur in detentions, and even in trials. Likewise, suicide may be the product of temporary mental malfunction. Innocent inmates may despair and end things before truth triumphs. Jailhouse humiliations may breed depression precisely among the more sensitive sorts who are not cut out for custody. Clearly the picture is not one-dimensional. Which is why the ease with which inmates in Israeli jails are managing to execute themselves is something that should worry us all. MOST DISTURBINGLY, the failure to keep such inmates alive points to an underlying, systemic problem. The claim by prison service apologists that "anyone determined to kill himself is bound to succeed," voiced repeatedly after both the Topaz and the Goldring suicides, is both spurious and ethically unacceptable. The authorities pinpoint "candidates" for suicide and put them on special watch. If suicidal inmates nevertheless manage to overcome surveillance, the incontrovertible bottom line is that the vigilance was inadequate. And the trouble is that it keeps getting more and more inadequate. There are no grounds to believe that prisoners this year are more suicide-prone than in the past. But jailhouse suicide numbers are rising. In 2007, seven prisoners committed suicide. Nine did so during 2008. Nine months into 2009, 13 suicides have already been confirmed. The prison service's claim to have prevented 750 attempts cannot be substantiated or even credibly evaluated. An internal investigation may have cleared Topaz's wardens, but their ostensibly competent conduct is hard to reconcile with the fact that a prisoner denied shoelaces had an electrical cord at his disposal. Goldring was allowed out into an enclosed 5-by-5-meter courtyard, in which he managed to scale a 3-m.-high wall before diving from it headfirst. Where were his guards? If they failed to prevent a suicide-watch inmate scaling a wall, how effective are they in preventing escapes? That's not a rhetorical question. Several high-profile prisoner escapes in recent years constitute the dismal answer. OFFICIAL NONCHALANCE toward prisoner suicide, moreover, can abet other crimes. Aduan Farhan - charged with murdering teenager Dana Bennet - has confessed to strangling cellmate Aharon Simahov in 2004. At the time, however, Simahov's death was casually ascribed to suicide, further investigation wasn't deemed necessary and the case was closed. For a long while, therefore, Farhan literally got away with murder. His crime would never have been suspected had he not given himself away. Superficial, careless forensics go hand in hand with superficial, careless supervision of severely at-risk prisoners. The bottom line for all of us on the "outside" is that lax standards "inside" can lead to the de facto takeover of prisons by the worst of strong-arm tyrants and underworld power brokers. The resultant loss of control cannot but impact the safety of the law-abiding citizenry. The prisons service needs to improve its performance and bring those suicide statistics back down. And when it fails, it needs independent, outside investigations, because as things stand, it is evidently disinclined to learn from its mistakes.

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