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The Knesset's Labor and Welfare Committee last Tuesday discussed programs that have suddenly been taken off their cobwebbed shelves. One is the privatization of Israeli prisons. The former public security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, decided to shelve the idea. Now that ministry, under Uzi Landau, is reviving it, but this time in a sweeping manner and with the argument that it must do so, by order of the Finance Ministry.

Surprisingly, at the committee session, it was learned that the Finance Ministry prefers privatization because it considers it economical; however, a few months ago, the ministry's Budgets Division and the Public Security Ministry signed an agreement for the transfer of NIS 400 million for the construction of new prisons. The zeal for privatization has been aroused apparently in Landau's immediate vicinity.

Were it not so sad, the situation would be comical. Israel always has to try out things that have proved to be failures in America. Political Science Professor Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University, who heads a forum that opposes privatization of prisons, compares the intended privatization arrangement with the distribution of franchises to cable television companies. Consumers who are fed up with paying exorbitant fees for miserable service can always decide to cancel their cable TV subscription. However, prisoners who can longer stand their abominable incarceration conditions have no choice but to remain incarcerated. Privatized prisons will not guarantee better service for the consumer. Quite the contrary.

Unlike Ben-Ami, who, for a brief and surprising period, defended privatization on principle (in blatant contrast with the thesis appearing in his book, "A Place for Everyone"), Landau apparently favors privatization as the only solution to the present distress of Israeli prisons.

Ben-Ami proposed the French model, where only services (primarily catering) and logistics are privatized. In the end, he capitulated, not just because of the academic forum's offensive, but also because the arithmetic showed that semi-privatization saves very little. Of the Prison Authority's budget, 85 percent goes for the guards' salaries.

Landau and officials in his ministry are talking about total privatization, along the lines of the American model, in the hope that this arrangement can save a lot of money. According to the American model, the franchisee constructs, rents or buys prisons, runs them and is responsible for security and policing.

As proven by research studies conducted in the United States, this model benefits only the private prison companies. They annually report attractive profits to the shareholders: profits that jumped from $650 million in 1996 to $1 billion in 1997. The state has not seen one cent of this money: It continues to pay the franchisees per inmate and must fund a regulation mechanism.

The incarceration companies, interested in increasing the number of clients, have become a political factor using lobbyists to persuade legislators to institute heavier penalties. The excellent TV series "Oz" is a good source of information for anyone who wants to know what happens to prisoners - the vast majority being Afro-Americans and poor whites - in the new prisons: They work hard to produce profits for the shareholders but they do not necessarily learn a new trade. They are not rehabilitated. Their living conditions are just as bad as - if not worse than - what they were under the old system and all those who complain that they have been denied, for example, essential medication are thrown into solitary confinement. That is the American model.

Privatized prisons not only mean stiffer penalties: As in the U.S., the inmates here would become the system's slaves and would be less skilled and less educated than they are today. In America's privatized prisons, the rate of staff turnover is dizzying and violence toward inmates is many times greater than in state-run facilities. Moreover, since the franchisees determine classification and length of stay, rich inmates can buy posh conditions (and, under this model and unlike the Ofer Nimrodi case, far from the public's view), while the prospects for early release of other inmates will diminish. Who needs to rehabilitate prisoners when the franchisee can just keep them out of sight?

With its eyes wide open and through complex legislation in an era of a rightist regime that is not overly concerned for the rights of the individual, the state could end up giving private companies the franchise to employ force against citizens who have committed an offense, and the denial of freedom to such citizens will become the hallmark of every advanced society.

Officials of the finance and public security ministries are trying to placate the opponents with the claim that the contract would only be temporary and that, if the arrangement proves a failure, the hands of the clock can always be turned back. There is no precedent for such an occurrence. Can anyone imagine the state reassuming responsibility for cable TV?

The worst element in this whole picture is the fact that the Public Security Ministry has decided to explore the need for privatization by means of a private organizational consulting firm, instead of seeking the advice of a professional committee consisting of criminologists, jurists and social service experts. It would be a pity if the ministry falls into the dangerous political trap set by the champions of privatizing human freedom and dignity. It can only be hoped that the members of the Knesset will understand the dangers inherent in the privatized prison scheme and will not be a party to legislation that would enable its implementation.