Almost 40% of female prison guards were sexually harassed - Comptroller

The highly problematic rate of sexual harassment in the prisons was matched by an identical 38% rate in the IDF and by an approximate 25% rate in the police.

Police officers and prison guards at the scene of a prison escape of  six Palestinian prisoners, outside the Gilboa prison, northern Israel, September 6, 2021. (photo credit: FLASH90)
Police officers and prison guards at the scene of a prison escape of six Palestinian prisoners, outside the Gilboa prison, northern Israel, September 6, 2021.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Nearly 40% of women working in the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) were sexually harassed, either by their commanders or by prisoners, during their service, according to a special report by State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman.

The report found that 38% of women working in the IPS who were surveyed by his office were sexually harassed in one capacity or another.

The highly problematic rate of sexual harassment in the prisons was matched by an identical 38% rate in the IDF and by an approximate 25% rate in the police.

These figures “raise a red flag” and demand immediate major changes by the relevant ministers of defense and public security regarding the various security and law-enforcement services in question, Englman said.

It was unclear how effective the report will be with new ministers coming into those key ministries in the near future who hold no past responsibility for the poor record of the security services before them.

 GILBOA PRISON, in northern Israel near the West Bank.  (credit: FLASH90) GILBOA PRISON, in northern Israel near the West Bank. (credit: FLASH90)

The comptroller’s report is an interim one issued to give accelerated criticism and oversight to the prisons and the police following multiple scandals at Gilboa Prison and elsewhere that became major scandals this past year.

Despite these efforts, some in the media have pressed for the comptroller to call for an end to female soldiers serving in the IPS and police, which he has declined to do.

Englman’s position is that it is not his place to give the government advice on what is the right policy as much as it is to flag deficiencies.

He also took the opportunity to publish a separate and earlier IDF-focused report that the military had kept under wraps.

While the comptroller revealed detailed data regarding the prisons and the police, he was clearly constrained from revealing as much comprehensive data regarding the IDF report, other than that his staff assured the media that its methodology met the highest standards.

Data for the comptroller’s report included in-person meetings with 25% of the female soldiers in service, as well as receiving 1,907 responses to questionnaires distributed to a mix of about 5,500 current soldiers and 7,500 soldiers who have finished their service.

Sexual harassment in the IDF

Critically, the report said meetings with the female soldiers were held outside of the presence of their commanders to empower them to feel safe to express their true feelings (unless a soldier insisted on the commander being present).

Forty-six percent of female soldiers said they had reported sexual-harassment incidents. About 70% said they felt the system’s handling of their complaint was either inadequate or led to no response at all.

One problem the comptroller noted was the age gap between female soldiers, who are usually 18-21, compared with their commanders and the prisoners, who might be decades older. The report also said the current culture and role of hierarchy in the organizations has made the problem worse.

According to the report, out of 442 complaints filed by female soldiers serving with the police, only six indictments have been filed.

Similarly, out of 185 complaints filed by female soldiers serving with the prisons, only one indictment was filed and one plea bargain signed, which merely imposed a suspended sentence.

These numbers also led to criticism of the state prosecution for not being aggressive enough on sexual harassment, though it was not the main focus of the report.

Another issue is that female soldiers, both during and after their service, get sexually harassing social-media messages from security prisoners still in prison, as well as from released prisoners.

Next, the report cited some specific examples from female complainants.

One woman said there were prisoners who looked at her regularly “like a piece of meat.”

Multiple women mentioned security prisoners pulling their pants down in front of her and demanding that she perform a sexual act on them.

Another prisoner said he would only go into his cell if a female soldier would go in with him and perform sexual acts.

In response to the report, the IPS said: “We are proud of the important service that the IDF prison guards provide to the IPS and believe in their contributions, women and men together. We do not treat our responsibility for the safety of our personnel lightly.”

“Just in the last year, we provided a support hotline to female prison guards,” it said, adding that the IPS is working hard to create awareness and greater comfort for coming forward.

In past months, a new division for empowering women, headed by IPS Commissioner Katy Perry, was also started, it said. Perry headed the Prisons Service when the Gilboa Prison break took place in September 2021.

December 2021 and May 2022 surveys found that 60% of IDF prison guards were satisfied with their service and that many wish to continue with a career in the IPS after concluding their military service, the Prisons Service said.

Still, the IPS acknowledged it has significantly more work to do to improve its handling of the issues.

Likewise, the Israel Police said it views every case of sexual harassment “gravely” and that every instance is carefully checked, along with extending support to any victims.

The police tried to flip the narrative on the increase in volume of sexual-harassment reports, saying it showed that women were feeling more comfortable coming forward.

In response to the report, the IDF said it “acts with zero tolerance for cases of sexual harassment and sexual offenses and acts to protect the ecosystem of various IDF units.”

In October 2021, the military initiated a task force of high-ranking officers to study how to improve the “loaning” of its soldiers to the IPS and the police.

In addition, the IDF said it now sends inspectors to visit its soldiers in prisons every two months to ensure that their work conditions meet appropriate standards. This is also supposed to facilitate faster transfers back to regular military service if the prison guards are not satisfied with their work conditions.

More specifically, the greater and more frequent physical presence of IDF commanders at prison locations as well as a recent conference to promote awareness for soldiers serving in the prisons and the police are designed to rebuild the link between these soldiers and the IDF.

The IDF said it has seen a rise in soldiers making complaints to its hotline, which, like the police, it said was a sign of improvement in the culture surrounding the issues in question.