Young prisoners are treated with humanity and reason

Since I was one of the only American Israelis in the room, the question regarding the difference between the American and Israeli jail system came up, and I was asked what I thought about it.

April 15, 2019 23:55
4 minute read.
Young prisoners are treated with humanity and reason

A drug addict stands behind the bar at a Hamas-run prison in Gaza City March 1, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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About six months ago, I participated in a lecture about crime, punishment and the American jail system. The lecture at Kol Shalom Synagogue in Maryland, led by its esteemed Conservative rabbi with many scholars participating, discussed how Judaism sees crime and punishment.

Since I was one of the only American Israelis in the room, the question regarding the difference between the American and Israeli jail system came up, and I was asked what I thought about it. Beside an intuitive hunch that Israeli prisoners would be treated with more humanity than other inmates, I didn’t have much proof to back it up. But after my visit last week at Ofek Juvenile Prison in the Sharon, I can testify that my suspicion was solidly confirmed.

Ofek houses the only youth prison in Israel – a separate section of the Rimonim Prison. Where Rimonim currently houses over 800 prisoners, there are 80 boys from ages 14-18 who are sentenced for the most serious offensive crimes ranging from rape to murder – crimes for which the judicial system could not find alternative institutional rehabilitation. “The court system hates to send them here because they are still so young,” one social worker told me. But alas, when all other institutions fail, they come here.

My visit at the prison was part of my new role as the Zofim (Israeli Scouts) development director, where I learn about all the different projects that Zofim operates around Israel and the world. Zofim is the largest youth movement in Israel, with more than 90,000 members and about half-a-million alumni. Since its establishment in 1919, it has operated 220 troops in over 150 municipalities in Israel’s center and periphery for special-needs and at-risk youths.

While its work fostering democracy, inclusion and social responsibility is well known, its work in this Israel prison is almost a secret. As a matter of a fact, it is the only youth movement that operates within these prison walls. Based on its principles of fairness and justice, it refuses to leave the “others” behind. These others are boys ages 14-18, Jews and Arabs alike (40% and 60%) who spend their days in jail cells with four to five hours of school and five meals a day. Some of the staff who works here will say that even though these youngsters can’t wait to be free, they often feel safer in jail than the neighborhoods they grew up in.

I went to visit these boys in the “Purimon,” a concept known only to a true Israeli Scout. Purimons are special fairs full of festivities, games and prizes. Zofim scout troops create one in each municipality in which they have a presence, most of which are open to the public and create a great buzz over this happy festival of Purim.

THIS PURIMON in jail took place at the gym, the largest secure space these prisoners are allowed to be in, tightly secured with officers, teachers and social workers – all hands on deck – making sure no one gets hurt. The Zofim counselors who welcomed the boys as they enter the gym work with these prisoners each week to bring hope and smiles to them. They let them know the world didn’t forget them behind these prison walls. They bring smiles, hope and compassion – gestures these boys are desperately lacking in their caged life. They meet week after week; although Zofim in Ofek is the only voluntary activity these boys have, it is a full house each week.

Both Arabs and Jews are rewarded and encouraged with a smile, and the spirit emanating from these khaki-dressed scouts is filled with passion for Israel, democracy and decency. “I don’t dig into their criminal background because it will interfere with what I am here to do,” says the fragile-looking young woman in her 20s, the Zofim counselor in charge. “I know they won’t hurt me. We are building trust - that is what I do. I have the officers if I need them, but I’m usually fine,” she adds.

While waiting at the entrance for the officers to check my ID and take my phone, I met another young lady in a Scouts uniform. I mentioned that I thought we were both heading to the same place and asked if she was one of the counselors. Her comment was: “I finished my service here last year but I come in on Purim because I miss these guys... it’s the kind of work that goes straight to your heart. We act as their parents, older siblings and best friends. They miss us, so we have to let them know we didn’t forget about them and went on with our life while they stay here.”

“Aren’t you afraid to get hurt?”

“No,” she says. “I know it’s crazy – what seems to be going on here – why someone like me from a good home in Tel Aviv would be interested to visit jail. But we care and it’s part of our set of values we grew up on.”

Zofim’s counselors are young adults who commit two years of service to the Ofek project. There is a group of about six counselors who are trained as mentors for the young prisoners, creating social activities once a week in the prison and mentoring them throughout the day. As I applaud her deep care and compassion, I think about these values she grew up on, and how beautiful it is to meet these young people in the most unexpected corners of life. Zofim created this opportunity for her to serve, and she and her friends took it upon themselves to fulfill this promise of shared society, even in caged places.

The writer is development director of Zofim (Israeli Scouts).

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