By LIAT COLLINS
Buried among the bigger issues of the proposed prisoner release that could allow IDF soldier Gilad Schalit to return from Hamas captivity, the cabinet's approval of a temporary freeze on settlement building and the world's inability to pinpoint Gilo on a map of Jerusalem, it's not surprising that at least one important story failed to maintain major headlines for long. Competition was tough. But this story was, in its way, all about competition.
Setting a worldwide precedent, the High Court of Justice on November 19 overturned Knesset legislation and ruled that a privately owned and run prison was unconstitutional.
Summing up, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch noted that while imprisonment, by its very nature, entails a violation of human rights, when it is carried out by the state it is done for the public good - not for profit.
The petition was filed by the Human Rights Division of the Ramat Gan Academic College of Law, led by young lawyer Gilad Barnea. Several celebrity attorneys had reportedly turned down the case. Apparently, they didn't feel they stood to gain enough out of it.
The prison, with a capacity for 800 inmates, has already been built, and to an evidently higher standard than most of the country's other dated facilities. Now it seems the Prisons Service will take over its operation, as it should have done from the start.
As a Post editorial noted, the wheels of justice in this case ground extremely slowly. It took the court four and a half years to overturn the legislation permitting the privatization. The Knesset itself had taken years to discuss the case. Throughout the whole period, human rights lawyers had pointed out the dangers of putting the power of meting out punishment and withholding privileges in private hands.
The entrepreneurs went ahead with the project despite the controversy it periodically raised. They seem to have banked on the fact that if money talks, big money talks loudly. And it can usually drown out the voice of the small man, let alone a convict.
Africa Israel and the Minrav Company, which won the tender to build and operate the prison, are now reportedly considering suing the state for a huge sum in compensation, as are the large staff that had already been hired. Many of them had understandably left jobs in the Prisons Service and elsewhere in the public sector, thus endangering their pension plans, in favor of the higher wages and perks they were promised in the private sector.
The potential dangers of the court overturning Knesset legislation are clear, but in this case the justices showed tremendous courage in righting a wrong - or more to the point, preventing its ultimate perpetration.
While it might make sense to outsource certain services - catering, laundry and cleaning, for example - the concept of prisons-for-profit has proven highly problematic elsewhere. In a country where organized crime is on the rise, it is not a good idea to have the best jailers that money can buy. And heaven help us if we ever reach the situation in which we have to consider a prisoner release with the Palestinians from the economic perspective, with a private prison demanding compensation for the sudden loss of revenue.
Many years ago, as the Post's environmental reporter, I wrote a Purimspiel that turned out to be, if not particularly funny, at least successful. It was at the height of the privatization craze of the mid-1990s. Profit-oriented kibbutzim were growing shopping malls instead of oranges on state-owned land, and the country had placed "for sale" signs outside the banks, the national airline, the Zim shipping company, Israel Chemicals and the Dead Sea Works, among others. Despite the hype, it was clear that the last person to profit would be the proverbial man on the street. One of the first things to suffer would be the environment. Green is not necessarily cheap, but it's hard to quantify the price of ruining the environment. Especially as it will be future generations who to have to pay for it.
I wrote a skit in which the government was looking to privatize Eilat and turn it into an independent tourist-oriented authority.
In the days before e-mail and Internet talkbacks, response to stories was slow. Mid-morning, I received a panicked phone call from the Environment Ministry demanding to know where I'd got the story from. It turns out their clipping service had seen the item and presented it in the daily news round-up without noting that it had appeared on a Purim page.
Nowadays, I suspect even more people might take the idea seriously.
In the wake of the Wall Street crash and the collapse of the Madoff pyramid, when places like Dubai face financial ruin for projects like the Burj tower that were literally too big to handle, we should all be taking a good look at the limits of capitalism. I often recommend my grandfather's principle: "Never gamble with more than you can afford to lose."
Many financial tycoons - including Africa Israel's Lev Leviev - are now seeking some kind of deal to bail them out from the trouble they got themselves into at our expense. This does not make me happy. The public stands to lose out a second time. It used to be said that the rich man paid the poor man's wages. Now, the trend is for the rich man to become wealthy by cutting the poor man's pay and kicking his assets.
In my tiny corner of the world, a whole community has mobilized to fight the plan to close the neighborhood swimming pool and turn it into luxury housing or a private car park - whichever can bring greater profits to a few families. The owners, incidentally, pledged to maintain an affordable public pool when they first bought and developed the land. Surprisingly, the demonstration last month by 300 concerned citizens made the main Channel 2 television news broadcast. Perhaps people are getting the message that the quality of life has far-reaching implications.
There was also some good news: In a small step for wildlife enthusiasts but a leap for local gazelles, the Jerusalem Municipality's District Planning Committee a week ago, after a decade of discussions, finally ruled that a local green area known as "Gazelle Valley" will become an official nature park instead of a housing project.
We're still battling real-estate plans which have renamed the old pinui-binui (eviction-construction) project under the trendier tag of "urban renewal." This aims at replacing the small, old apartment buildings with tower blocks that don't so much scrape the sky as prick it. The new housing, going on previous cases, will not be affordable to the average middle-class family, and hence will create new social problems without solving the real housing issues. Truly, we are turning into a city of profits.
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss apparently recognized the private vs public good clash last month when he urged the Israel Lands Administration not to extend the contract it had signed with private builders to construct a resort on Palmahim beach, near Rishon Lezion, depriving the general public of access to yet another natural asset: the sea and sand.
Natural justice, after all, demands that those who are in prison should be assured of at least basic human rights, and those who are free should be able to enjoy going to the local pool, park or beach.
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