Israel's first-ever private prison was set to open in a few weeks outside Beersheba. Construction of the modern, 800-inmate, medium-security facility is complete, down to the plumbing and decorating. But the formal housewarming was unceremoniously put on hold. A Supreme Court injunction issued last week by an expanded nine-justice panel, headed by Court President Dorit Beinisch, prohibited any move until a final decision on the matter - already pending for the past four years. The justices took the state and private investors to task for pressing ahead with the project despite a 2006 injunction by a seven-member Supreme Court panel calling into question legislation adopted in 2004 to introduce privatization to Israel's prisons. That injunction, the Court argued last Wednesday, put all involved on notice that they're on shaky ground as it's likely that the law will be overturned. In other words, the entrepreneurs built at their own risk. To prevent a fait accompli, they are now forbidden to populate the prison until further notice. AT THE vanguard of the anti-privatization campaign are instructors from the Ramat Gan Academic College of Law. They demand that plans already in the pipeline be frozen on the grounds that penal facilities come under the definition of "core powers," which the law forbids the state from parceling out, particularly to profit-oriented organizations. The tender for the construction was won in 2005 by the Africa-Israel Corporation and associates under Lev Leviev. The consortium in turn hired the consulting services of Texas-based Emerald Correctional Management, which runs a number of prisons in the Lone Star State. Private penitentiaries proliferate primarily in the US, where commercial concerns construct, own and operate prisons, and are paid by the contracting governmental agency on a per diem per prisoner basis. The Knesset preferred the American-style full-privatization model, rejecting middle-of-the-road semi-private arrangements in force in parts of Europe and Britain. There, some prison operational functions are sub-contracted, but the state retains ultimate control. Given Israel's acute budgetary constraints and severe overcrowding (some 12,500 convicts in 24 facilities), the notion of turning inmates over to the custody of business interests seems particularly attractive. Currently prisoners here occupy an average of 3.4 sq.m each, whereas in the new facility they'd have 5.28 sq.m. But can a private concern, given all imaginable goodwill, really devote attention to issues of deterrence and/or rehabilitation? State prisons may not always do sterling jobs, but at least we know where the buck stops. This is no ordinary privatization geared to increase healthy competition. The danger, rather, is that it's a shirking of public responsibility. The American concept's rationale is to relieve overcrowding and save taxpayer dollars. Yet some recent studies indicate that the opposite may be true. Complaints involve poor medical care and food quality for inmates, as well as substandard training for guards, along with low pay and deliberate understaffing. Certain American private prisons serially breed more violence and enticements to bribery than government institutions. Weighty questions abound here. How would prisoner conduct be judged? Who would mete out punishment, allow or withhold privileges? Would it be possible to penetrate the business reality of operating behind bars in order to ascertain that money is spent where earmarked, that bills submitted to the state are honest and that no corrupt connections are established between operators and overseers of facilities far from society's vigilant eye? In America private penitentiaries were huge money-makers as far back as the early 1800s, when they generated conditions often close to slavery, especially when convict labor was "leased" to outside employers. Generally this newspaper is uneasy about interventionist court inclinations to usurp greater powers at the expense of the legislative branch. Here, however, we may encounter an exception. The court is right to emphasize the need for supervisory measures to ensure proper regulation for so difficult, yet indispensible, a service as incarceration. In this instance the court is a very necessary watchdog, even if an atrociously slow one. The justices haven't set a foot wrong in this case - they only dragged their feet unduly. There's no reason their deliberations couldn't have been wound up long ago.