Few Israeli Prisoners Get Marketable Work Experience

Government could save 250m shekels with a proper employment program for prisoners, say experts.

Limor Edrey

Every morning in recent years E. would wake up, get dressed and go out to work. She wasn’t escorted by anyone and wasn’t under supervision. At the end of the work day she would return to the place where she lives: the Neve Tirza prison. E. is Eti Alon, one of Israel’s most famous prisoners, who was released earlier this month after about 14 years in prison.

Alon, who participated in innumerable rehabilitation and work programs in prison, entered an individual rehabilitation program that enables prisoners to go out to work every day outside the prison, in order to develop a normal lifestyle that reduces the chances of recidivism. She participated in the most advanced rehab program for prisoners who are not considered dangerous and not expected to attempt an escape. But very few get to enter the program – about 134 prisoners a year out of 12,000 criminal prisoners in Israel. In that small group most of the prisoners don’t leave prison alone, but in small and supervised groups, and work in factories or on Israel Defense Force bases.

Despite their small number, the results of the program are significant. A study by Prof. Efrat Shoham of the Ashkelon Academic College’s Criminology Department, together with Dr. Badi Hasisi and Prof. David Weisburd of the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, examined 827 prisoners who participated in the rehab program from 2004 to 2012. The program was shown to have reduced recidivism by about 10 percent compared to the control group – which included prisoners with a suitable profile who were not included in the program.

“The first year [after release] is the most dangerous in terms of recidivism,” says Shoham. But according to the study, the chances of recidivism among participants in the program declined by 43 percent. Only 6 percent returned to prison in the year after release, compared to 11 percent in the control group. Later on there were also big differences between the two groups.

In summary, the average decline in recidivism among participants in the rehab program is 10 percent compared to the control group. In addition, 82 percent of the participants met the criteria for early release, compared to only half in the control group.

According to an examination by the Finance Ministry’s budget division, every returning prisoner costs the government about 3.1 million shekels (about $822,000) during the course of his criminal life. A simple calculation shows that Israel saved tens of millions of shekels on average, due to those 10 percent of participants in the program who didn’t return to prison. If the number of participants increases to 750 a year (which is still a relatively small number), the government could save an average of about a quarter of a billion shekels.

These savings are still a distant dream considering the fact that at present the Israel Prison Service is unable to fill even the quota allocated to the program: 175 prisoners. The reason is IPS fears, which are reflected in a long series of criteria: “The prisoner must undergo rehabilitation programs in prison, be eligible for several furloughs, be drug free and receive a large number of recommendations from professional bodies,” explains Shoham. “The far-reaching criteria make it difficult to expand the program.”

Shoham says that the IPS has to be more generous, while significantly strengthening relevant professional training inside the prison and dealing with continued employment after release. “It’s hard to find employers for prisoners prior to release,” she says, “and particularly employers who will agree to employ them after their release, so we have to invest in incentives for employers. A survey proved that 70 percent of those who employed prisoners were not afraid to hire them again after release – as compared to 13 percent of employers who had no previous contact with prisoners.”

Prisoner employment law is stuck

In the Hermon Prison, the IPS national rehabilitation center, they are aware of these fact and understand that the prisoners should be prepared for life outside prison by means of relevant training. Recently they opened computer classes and electricity and wiring courses. Some of the prisoners are trained as cooks inside the prison.

But in most of the prisons the jobs are simple and the basic training doesn’t prepare inmates for work after release. “Half of the 12,000 criminal prisoners in Israel [another 8,000 are security prisoners and infiltrators] don’t work at all for various reasons – deficiencies, addictions or completing education,” explains criminologist Dr. Hagit Lernau, deputy to Israel’s Public Defender.

“Of the 6,000 prisoners who work, half work in various services – in other words, in regular maintenance of the prison – and receive a few shekels a day. This is an important contribution to the prison, which maintains itself and enables the prisoners to acquire work habits, but has no real value in advance of their release,” says Lernau.

The other half of the workers – some 3,000 prisoners – are part of an employment system that includes workshops belonging to the IPS (for example, a local printing house) or external factories built inside the prison. Many of them constitute a relaxing source of daily employment (an internal plant for tying tzitziot, ritual fringes worn by Orthodox men, for example), but do not train prisoners for outside jobs.

“Prisoner employment has been on the table for at least 10 years,” says Lernau. “The draft bill formalizes what the IPS gives now, while we think that there is need for a revolution in IPS thinking regarding prisoner employment and rehabilitation in general.”

What’s the reason for the debate regarding the law?

“The debate is about the role of the IPS. If its main role is to run the prison, they do good work. But the belief today is that the IPS has a broader role, which includes rehabilitation for the day after. Integration into the job market is a strong key to rehab success – even stronger than education programs or drug withdrawal – so there’s no choice but to completely change the employment system and the follow-up.”

How, for example?

“In the group rehab program the IPS takes no risks, which is why the program is so limited despite proof of its effectiveness. It’s time to expand the criteria so that more prisoners can enter the employment rehab program.”

Lernau says it’s important to decide that basic service and maintenance work, which is very good for people lacking work habits, be limited in time – six months to a year – before switching to more lucrative work. Presently there is no such commitment. All the prison courses should be geared to skills required in the job market outside.

She notes that the prisoner must be taught how to behave at a job interview and to write a resume, and believes that the IPS should follow up, report and measure its achievements – not according to behavior in prison but according to the percentage of prisoners who underwent training and have found relevant work.

“We have to remember that the IPS can’t do these things without government support, because they require money. For example, the government should subsidize prisoner wages to provide an incentive to employers to hire them. There’s a good chance that a prisoner who starts working at the government expense for three or six months will remain at the job and his chances of recidivism will decline.”

Will all these things lead to a basic change in the concept of the IPS’s role?

“Yes, a world view that prefers the prison’s administrative interests will be replaced by the social interest in rehabilitation. The IPS is proud of the employment system because revenues cover expenses. That can’t be the goal.”

Where is the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority?

Lernau says that the IPS should cooperate with the rehab authority and upon release the authority should replace the IPS. This requires a change in the prison service’s approach and a strengthening of the rehabilitation authority.

In northern Europe they’ve been doing this for a long time. Why is Israel only thinking about rehab now?

“Our viewpoint is more like that in America, and is based on privileges: If you want a phone, do what we say; if you don’t go to the therapy group, we’ll withhold this or that. The carrot and stick approach, which studies prove belittle the person.”

There’s also a problem with the physical conditions in Israeli prisons. In northern Europe the period of imprisonment is different, there are more tools for treatment in the community, the prisons look different and there’s more emphasis on rehab and the day after, according to Lernau.

“If we want to reduce the number of prisoners, in order to end the cycles of crime and poverty that cost the government a lot of money, we should begin to think a little like northern Europe.”

The Israel Prison Service responded: “The rehabilitation of prisoners is a significant and integral part of the task of imprisonment. Along with the education centers and the therapy groups, employment is a main component in the rehabilitation process. The IPS invests great efforts in professional training and placing prisoners in jobs and in professional work.

“At first the prisoner will work in prison maintenance and kitchen jobs, receive compensation and become accustomed to the lifestyle of a working person. Later he can work in the productive centers in the prison and only afterwards can he go to work outside the prison, in the context of group rehabilitation programs and finally individual rehab.

“There are many success stories of released prisoners who after their release were successfully absorbed into the job market.”