Barring violence

Israel Prison Service Commissioner Ya'acov Ganot acknowledges that the buck stops with him.

prison88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
On the floor of the textile factory, men dressed in brown shirts and trousers sit at sewing machines, engrossed in the act of stitching seams on pieces of white cloth. Many appear to be in their forties and fifties. A few have gray beards, with their glasses perched half way down their noses. Some are wearing the knitted kippot favored by the national religious community; a smattering of others don the black velvet skull caps commonly used by haredim. The room is not noticeably noisy, and one man listens to music through earphones as he works, while others intermingle freely with the supervisors. Just outside the edifice, sculptures of people and animals decorate a lawn adjacent to an outdoor basketball court that doubles as a soccer field. The scene is one of harmonious routine. An average day at an average factory. Except for one thing: This "industrial plant" is actually a part of a jail. And these laborers are prisoners, convicted of a variety of crimes, including murder. Within view of the artwork scattered on the grass, security cameras, guard towers, reinforced concrete walls and barbed wire fencing ensure that no one tries to escape. This is the Ayalon prison - the maximum security facility in Ramle where Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman was hanged in 1960. It is also where Yitzhak Rabin assassin Yigal Amir sees out his days of solitary confinement, his cell just meters away from the building in which prisoners exercise their conjugal rights once a month. (Amir has not been allowed to consummate his marriage to Larissa Trimbobler.) Ayalon is one of 25 jails in the Israel Prison Service (IPS), which altogether hold roughly 13,000 criminal and 6,000 security prisoners. About 2,000 criminal prisoners are employed by the service, earning anywhere between NIS 300 and NIS 4,000 a month. Before they begin working, the authorities prefer they take part in educational courses. Around 2,000 receive an average of NIS 5 a day to attend classes in reading, mathematics, English and other subjects. In addition, during the evenings, prisoners are able to engage in activities such as music and sculpting. The impressive sculptures on the lawn, it turns out, were made by the prisoners themselves. Israel Prison Service Commissioner Lieutenant-General Ya'acov Ganot believes that providing prisoners with employment, schooling and other programs is the best way to rehabilitate them and the most effective method of bringing down the current re-offending rate of 60 percent. "If people are back here for the sixth time, all the systems have failed," he says to a delegation from The Jerusalem Post in his office at IPS headquarters, situated next to the prison. "If we can have an influence the first time, we will save on the sixth time. If we invest here, we will save on welfare departments in the municipalities. Here they are our responsibility. Here we can influence them more than any organization and outside body, because here we hold (the solution) in our hands." Ganot's welcome is warm, though his tone sometimes strident. At one point he commands, "Look at me." His office is adorned with modern art, various trophies and swords. On the wall hang signed photographs of President Moshe Katsav and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This is in stark contrast to a different room we visit in another part of the complex, a cellblock most of whose inhabitants are sex offenders. Here, six inmates - one of whom looks like a cinematic stereotype, with a handle-bar mustache and tattoos on his arms - stand by their bunk-beds awkwardly awaiting the arrival of our group of five. When we enter, neither we nor they are quite sure how to start communicating. When the ice is broken, one of the prisoners begins talking about overcrowding, which, says a prison spokeswoman, is responsible for the some 300 prisoners sleeping on the floors of different jails around the country. This is despite the IPS - according to Ganot - having spent NIS 400m. in the last two years on building and development. "There is a law that says every inmate should have 4.5 meters each, but it seems that the prison service doesn't have a choice," the prisoner says, his voice shaking slightly. Indeed, one gets a sense of the claustrophobia he is referring to even during a short tour of the place. In order to reach this cellblock, visitors must pass into the entrails of the prison complex, which looks more neglected the further in you proceed, with chipped paint and exposed piping running the length of the corridors. The spaces separating the factory from the cellblocks are narrow paths hemmed in on both sides by high walls and covered with wire meshing. The exercise yard, the size of a basketball court, is similarly enclosed. In the cell where we spoke to the inmates, there are 12 beds, two televisions (bought by the prisoners) and a bathroom. A couple of calendars hang from padlocked lockers - though they don't appear to have been marked with X's signifying each passing day of incarceration. Rolls of cheap, course toilet paper hang from the walls, as does a towel with pictures of dolphins and a poster of the Bnei Sahnin football team. THE CELLBLOCK we visit next is called Sela, an acronym for "a chance for the future." Referred to by one of the inmates as the "deluxe" model, this block is more attractive than the others, with a glass ceiling and and cleaner surfaces. But it is no less cramped. Though fewer inmates occupy each cell, the rooms are much smaller than those of the other blocks. "You need to be super good to get into this cellblock," says Ayalon Deputy Commander Yosef Mugames, indicating that inmates here have fewer behavioral, drug or alcohol problems than the others. "We are generally satisfied," says inmate Abdelhlim Hassan from the village of Mashad near Nazareth. "Everything is in the hands of the prisoner. Whoever is ok gets to this level." Hassan, who has been in jail for 11 years and has another five to go for committing an honor killing, enjoys furloughs and plans to get married in the summer. "I have known him for 10 years, and he is very good," says Mugames. The prison authorities' system of reward and punishment helps maintain discipline in the jails, says Ganot. Officers are armed only with gas canisters and electric shockers. "The fear among the prisoners is of losing privileges," Ganot explains. "If one goes crazy, another one watches him." This, he says, is even more effective than guarding them with guns. "If I give an officer a pistol," he says, "do you think he will hold it cocked the whole day? If they wanted to, the prisoners could steal the pistol." Ganot adds that he considers this work more dangerous than carrying out a raid in the Palestinian areas. "If they wanted to," he continues, "the prisoners could fashion a weapon. Take a pen, sharpen it a little and you have a makeshift knife. Or take the TV and throw it at somebody's head. Or break a plate and turn it into a shard. Or boil oil on the hot-plate." When a prisoner does cause problems, Ganot says the elite Masada rapid response unit is on standby to enter the jails whenever necessary. DESPITE THE dangers and the nature of the people who live in the Ayalon prison, the atmosphere is generally unthreatening. The conditions appear to be no worse than they are on many IDF bases, where the toilets become clogged very quickly and soldiers suffer from a similar lack of privacy and space. The circumstances of those passing their days here, however, could hardly be more different.