Do Israeli jails prepare prisoners for peace?
By Josh Spiro
Imagine opening your morning paper and discovering that 140,000 prisoners have just been released from United States jails. In other words, two percent of the country’s prison population has been liberated in one fell swoop. This is much like what happened in Israel when 429 Palestinian prisoners were released in an overture connected with the Annapolis summit. Their release raises the question of whether the prisoners deserved to be there in the first place. This question is troubling if you think the answer is no, and potentially more troubling if you think the answer is yes, but a third option is that the prisoners were initially violent or threatening and their attitudes changed in some way during their time in prison.
As part of their release, the 429 Palestinians were each required to sign a declaration saying that they would refrain from terrorist activities, but those declarations were only the last steps in their journey through the Israeli prison system. What is more important than these 429 signed pieces of paper is how the months and years of their curtailed sentences might have affected the extremity of these men’s attitudes towards Israel and how the services provided for them prepared them to return to Palestinian society.
Programs that aim to reduce extremist attitudes among prisoners have been implemented in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and by the United States in Iraq, and while the Israel Prison Service faces a similar scenario, they have no equivalent program. Brigadier General Yossi Beck, who deals with medical, educational and social work services as the head of the Israel Prison Service’s Rehabilitation and Treatment Division, is quick to point out why existing programs aimed to reduce extremism among prisoners can operate in other countries but not in Israel. “[In] Saudi Arabia and Singapore not just prison but other things are, let us say, more rigid, and people are given less choice in participating [in that type of program],” said General Beck. He added that the Israel Prison Service is working with a prisoner population of a different size and with different issues (there are approximately 10,000 security prisoners in Israel and 11,000 non-security prisoners).
General Beck went on to say that aside from Israel’s differing circumstances, the biggest problem he perceives for rehabilitation is intra-group pressure, which makes it difficult for a security prisoner to be counseled against violence before his release. “There is very strict discipline among security prisoners because of the organizations they belong to outside. You wouldn’t have someone waking up in the morning and saying ‘I might want to change my way of thinking’… if he would show such signs it would be very bad for him amongst his mates,” Beck said.
Yet recent surveys of the West Bank and Gaza populations indicate that 63.2% of the inhabitants of those areas support a peace settlement with Israel, which does not reflect the atmosphere of conformity that Beck suggests.
One way to explain the discrepancy between General Beck’s view and the sentiments expressed in the poll is to consider the reason for the difference in the freedom of expression for a member of a terrorist organization in prison versus a member of the general population answering an survey. Dr. Tamar Meisels, a scholar of political theory who specializes in nationalism and terrorism, elaborated on the sword of Damocles that Beck alluded to, which can make prisoners resistant to change. Meisels said, “part of the problem with terrorist organizations is that the primary target for terror is usually their own group, this is very clear with the FLN in Algiers. The first thing terrorist organizations do is focus on getting a lot of support by terrorizing their own group and inviting the enemy to attack their own group.” When asked about the feasibility of an educational or rehabilitative program to curtail extremism Meisels said, “I don’t know whether rehabilitation is an achievable goal even with regular criminals and its success [is even more] doubtful in this warlike context.”
While Meisels and Beck are skeptical of the feasibility of prisoner rehabilitation, Uri Timor, a professor of criminology at Bar Ilan University seems to think that the current prison system not only fails to ameliorate, but potentially reinforces the violent ideologies and actions that land prisoners there. He said, “[security prisoners] are sitting in prisons for tens of years, and there they meet other prisoners, form groups and don’t change their minds; and when they get out [we] hear the same things from them as though nothing happened.”
Despite Timor’s pessimism, and despite the lack of any IPS run program to educate security prisoners about nonviolent behaviors, there are opportunities for growth and change in the form of the education programs that prisoners can avail themselves of. Besides the option to complete their matriculation exams, prisoners are permitted to take Open University courses. General Beck said, “we allow any security prisoner that wants to study in the Open University to do so by correspondence; they can register and study and get a degree.” That said, there are some restrictions on the areas of study such as chemistry and physics, for obvious reasons, and art, which can be a touchy security issue since it involves large packages containing paintings and other artwork entering and exiting the prison premises.
As far as what the prisoners tend to study, Beck said that history, politics, Islam, and even the history of Zionism are common focuses, but that the range of interests is quite diverse. When asked if there was a correlation between taking these classes and the degree of extremism of the prisoners’ views he said, “Some of the people [who participate in the program] have more extreme thoughts and opinions while others are more moderate. I can’t say that there’s a certain type of prisoner that tends to study more than others.” He also said that after the classes, there was no discernible difference in the prisoner’s ideologies and attitudes.
Education is strongly connected to recidivism even if the polarity of that connection differs for different people. In other words, cross-cultural learning is a double-edged sword capable of bringing about understanding between disparate groups and individuals, or exposing the weaknesses of a group of people without changing the student’s attitude towards them. In this way, the education provided for these security prisoners is a microcosm of the larger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how knowledge of and contact with the other side can affect an individual’s views.
The ambivalent effects of this type of education coupled with Beck’s assertion that it doesn’t have a positive effect might suggest high recidivism rates, but that is not the case. 65% of security prisoners are in for their first time, 25% are in for their second time, and a mere 10% are in for their third incarceration. Beck explains these statistics in two ways, saying that security prisoners have “Lower recidivism rates because they are serving much longer terms, compared to regular prisoners like drug addicts who sometimes return after three months.” In fact, 12% of the prisoners are in for life, 30% have sentences of 10 years to life, 25% are in for 5 to 10 years, and 33% are in for less than 5 years. Beck also added, “Since they going back to the territories, even if they are involved in activities, they are less likely to get picked up again.”