Praying in prison

Alternative detention track for inmates includes hours of daily religious study.

Torah lesson at Rishonim Prison 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Prison Service)
Torah lesson at Rishonim Prison 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Prison Service)
It’s mid-morning in one of the largest prisons in Israel, and a couple of dozen Orthodox Jews in prison jumpsuits are rocking back and forth, diligently studying the Torah in almost complete silence.
Across the hallway, a small prison synagogue is filled to bursting with inmates of all ages playing darbuka drums, clapping and singing songs of praise. The scene could be set at any local synagogue in Israel, with one major difference.
“These men are not here because they were out eating a popsicle in the street; these men did bad things,” says Rabbi Shlomi Cohen, deputy chief rabbi of the Prisons Service.
This particular block of Rimonim Prison in the Sharon district is the “torani” (observant/ pertaining to Torah) branch – an alternative detention track for inmates that blends hours of daily religious study with the normal requirements of life behind bars.
The Rimonim Prison’s torani branch houses 108 prisoners, split into three separate levels; beginner, for the newly-religious who have turned to a life of piety behind bars; intermediate, for inmates who have a background in religious studies; and advanced, meant for haredi prisoners who have spent years studying in yeshiva and kollel on the outside.
The torani block of Rimonim is one of six branches spread across Israel, which house some 450 inmates. Three of these are solely for more Orthodox inmates, while the others provide classes at all levels. Outside of the torani branches, there are Jewish learning classes run at prisons across Israel, where more than 1,000 prisoners – about 10 percent of the Israeli prison population – receive regular Jewish religious instruction.
The torani detention program is a famous one in Israel, largely due to its popularity with disgraced politicians, such as former labor and welfare minister Shlomo Benizri, who spent two-and-a-half years of a corruption bid in Ma’asiyahu Prison’s torani ward, where he was imprisoned with former president Moshe Katsav, who is today serving a seven-year sentence for a battery of sex crimes.
The program has gained fame not only for its reported success in rehabilitating criminals but also for the widely held belief that it’s an easily exploited system for crooks and con men looking to work the system to enjoy an easier incarceration.
It’s an international stereotype: holy men who found God behind prison walls – or at least put on a pose of piety to fool judges, parole boards and spouses waiting on the other side. Israel is no exception, and the stereotype follows a familiar script: an Israeli thug who appears in court for a hearing with a faint beard on his face and a freshly bought kippa on his skull, with the rule of thumb often being the larger the kippa, the more serious the crime.
“There are those prisoners who come here thinking that it’s going to be the Plaza Hotel, that they just have to put on a kippa and that’s it. But we can usually root out those who are trying to do that, because there’s such a strong framework they have to adhere to day in and day out,” says Rabbi Gabriel Ezra, the head rabbi of Rimonim Prison.
A young man with a thin build and side-locks falling to the collar of his Prisons Service uniform, he scoots across the torani block, speaking of the program with the enthusiasm of a politician – or, for that matter, a jailhouse preacher. He pops inside the advanced-level study hall where he praises the “high level of study that wouldn’t be out of place in the best yeshivas in Jerusalem” before one student lifts his head from his prayer book and jokes that Ezra is such a politician he should leave and join the Knesset.
Outside the beginners’ study hall, Ezra points out the program’s schedule, which shows the hour-by-hour daily study load that begins with the morning prayer service at 6:15 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m., after seven hours of classes in the afternoon taught by the prisoners.
Ezra says the classes provide a rigorous framework for men who have often lived lives of chaos and disarray and haven’t learned clear and defined boundaries for human behavior.
Rabbi Cohen, who joined the Prisons Service 26 years ago after leaving the navy as an officer, echoes the sentiment, saying that in Torah study, “the idea is for them to ask, “What did I learn about this to make me a better person?” He says that they try to base most of these lessons on the teachings found in Leviticus on mitzvot between man and his fellow man.
“The central message we try to get across is that the world is not a jungle and you have to behave in the way that God has commanded you to act,” he says.
Inmate Hanan Ashtamker is a 42-year-old man of intimidating size with an almost cherubic face and giant hands. Ashtamker has spent the last three-and-a-half years at the Rimonim torani block as part of a six year sentence for an act of domestic violence against his ex-wife, upon which he would not elaborate.
Ashtamker has a history of violence within the prison system as well, but he says he has found ways to apply the study of Torah to his own rehabilitation. “What I learned in Torah study is that dealing with violence is the same as dealing with other issues – you just change the names and apply the lessons.”
Ashtamker has an eight-year-old daughter with whom he’s not in touch and, in his words, Torah study supplies a framework and a sense of purpose that he didn’t have before. He says he has taken the lessons from class and “applied them to relationships and the mistakes I made with my wife. I know I wouldn’t have done these things if I’d had this framework back then.”
This framework is well known to Dr. Uri Timor, a lecturer at the Ashkelon Academic College and at Bar-Ilan University, who has written repeatedly about the subject of prisoner rehabilitation, including a 1998 study that found remarkably low levels of recidivism for prisoners who had gone through religious programs behind bars and continued their studies after release.
Timor says while the program is a success in the general sense that it providing a quiet environment of prisoners who have a framework to keep them busy and away from violence and drugs, it also helps to rehabilitate them.
Of the 517 prisoners he examined for his study, only 50 returned to prison – a far lower number than the 43.5% recidivism rate among the general inmate population, according to Prisons Service statistics. Timor says he believes the same principles would bode well if such programs were implemented for the 48% of inmates who are not Jewish, but that such suggestions were dismissed by prison officials who fear such programs would become incubators for Muslim extremism.
“‘What are you crazy? You want us to have a branch of Hamas in the prison service?’ That was the basic response I got,” Timor says.
According to Timor, the framework the program provides is something that these men lack in their general life and a key to their success. “When you talk to prisoners, the word they say more than anything else is “balagan” (a mess); they say everything in their life was a mess, chaos. In the religious studies they give up their autonomy and they receive a sense of order in their lives.”
Still, the key is for inmates to keep the study going after they leave prison – otherwise it’s likely to all be for naught.
“When they get out and they just go back to their same neighborhood and their same friends, the odds are against them. What matters is that they stay in this framework when they get out of prison. Then they have much better chances.”