'The Prison's Message Is: Cooperate or You'll Go Back to the Cell and Be Eaten Alive by Bugs'

Following recent testimony from a former inmate who served five terms in Israeli prison, here’s what things look like from the guards’ and administrators’ perspective

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Ayalon Prison.
Ayalon Prison.

David Peled, you joined the Israel Prison Service four years ago, but not via the conventional route.

I submitted my candidacy to the service as part of a special effort intended to recruit Israel Defense Forces officers to the organization. At the time, I’d just been certified as a lawyer and I was coming from serving in the career army – in the Armored Corps – and in the VIP protection unit of the Shin Bet security service. After a long and complex admission process, I was accepted. I was assigned to Tzalmon Prison [in northern Israel], where I was director of a wing, and later in charge of its detention center.

Why did you decide to join the service?

This may sound a bit strange, but I wanted to do something that had value for society. I am a Zionist and an idealist. I had other options – I could have continued in the Shin Bet – but I wanted to engage with a place that many don’t want to have anything to do with. I was 40, and wanted to do new things. I have to admit that everyone I told about enlisting in the prison service said that I was making a mistake, that there was no chance I’d succeed in doing what I hoped to do, but somehow that kind of talk just made me more motivated.

Here’s a spoiler: They were right.

Yes. What I saw and experienced in the prison service totally shook me.

You know, I’m used to being part of a system. I came from the IDF, the Shin Bet. My past experience conflicted with everything I had to endure there, especially from the moral point of view. The attitude toward prisoners, the organizational codes – none of it was like anything I’d ever seen before. I discovered a rotting, rigid system that’s completely indifferent to the welfare of the prisoners it’s supposed to look after. Even worse, the system also works to deny them their rights.

You’re no longer part of the organization: You were fired [after four years].

I was fired from the prison service. In parentheses I’ll tell you that at the moment I’m waging a legal battle against them.

It’s not in parentheses. It needs to be on the table, so the impression won’t be created that you’re conducting a revenge campaign.

I am a Zionist and an idealist. I had other options – I could have continued in the Shin Bet – but I wanted to engage with a place that many don’t want to have anything to do with.


I am suing because they have a procedure that makes it difficult for and essentially prevents prison service officers from doing reserve duty [in the IDF]. They threatened to fire me if I did reserve service, and when I did it anyway – I was fired. The dismissal notice stated that I had done reserve duty contrary to prison service procedure and had undermined the organization’s order and discipline. The lawsuit is a matter of principle – I don’t need their money. As a company commander in the army, I have a commitment to the soldiers in my unit, and I am not ready to accept that an organization that actually styles itself a “security” organization would prevent its personnel from fulfilling their obligation to the state and serving in the IDF.

Is this a campaign of revenge? Absolutely not. I could have carried on with my quiet life and not been interviewed. I want to bring to the surface a problem that affects us all, as a society. I want to talk about what goes on in the backyard of the State of Israel, which is investing a fortune in incarcerated prisoners – we’re talking 15,000 shekels [$4,520] a month per prisoner – for nothing. These facilities are supposed to rehabilitate inmates and restore them to society. In practice, what happens is that the prisoners kill time until their release, then go back to crime and return to prison.

Let’s go back to when you joined the prison service. You were “parachuted in” to the job of director of a wing in Tzalmon. Did you have any prior training?

None. I was immediately given an officer’s rank. It wasn’t until half a year later that I did an officers’ course.

A bit odd, no?

Yes. In retrospect it was good: That leap made it possible for me to examine the system and its procedures from a number of perspectives – as a lawyer, as someone who now has a master’s in political science, and also based on my experience in the army and the Shin Bet. By the way, Tzalmon Prison is close to my home in the north. I found out that it’s rare in the prison service to get a close-to-home assignment. That immediately aroused suspicions.

David Peled.

Why? Who was suspicious?

I think the exact expression was a “plant.” That’s what the officers there called me. They were certain I was a plant from the chief commissioner’s office, that I was there to conduct a covert review. At first they refused to answer my questions or to cooperate, they were constantly evasive, they were afraid they would incriminate themselves.

Tzalmon Prison is a relatively new facility, isn’t it? It’s considered a “good” prison.

It’s new compared to other facilities, most of which date from the British Mandate period. Is it in good condition? No. Its infrastructures are decaying and it’s appallingly overcrowded. The population is complex in character. Inmates are doing time for offenses of serious violence, sexual offenses, robbery, murder. Many have personality disorders. Psychopaths. Sociopaths. You have to be vigilant 24/7. Things escalate rapidly into violence. There are drugs. There’s a whole industry of making spikes and knives.

Flood of petitions

What does a wing director do? What’s the daily routine?

There are between 60 and 180 inmates of various kinds, and the director is in charge of them and responsible for their routine: the head counts, meals, participation in studies, work and so forth. The director also deals with disciplinary issues. Let’s say in a case where one prisoner attacked another, or didn’t obey orders. In addition, he’s also responsible for inmates’ administrative petitions.

Prisoners are permitted to submit such petitions in order to raise problems related to their conditions of incarceration. It’s their only tool for protesting and making requests.

You need to understand something about prisoners. Even though we, as civilians, perceive them as threatening, in prison they are the weakest people in the world. With the flick of an officer’s pen, a prisoner will get isolation, solitary, cancellation of visits or denial of phone calls. There are plenty of sanctions, but no mechanisms to protect the prisoners – other than these petitions, which are actually their way of communicating with the world, whether to protest their punishment or demand vegetarian food.

The petition is submitted to the wing director, and he is supposed to go, with the prisoner, to the prison commissioner or his deputy, and they hold a discussion about the contents of the petition. It’s a very significant tool that is supposed to function as a review of the situation in the prison; to maintain the system within certain boundaries and ensure that it does not become corrupt and vicious.

I have a feeling there’s a “but” coming.

There is a “but.” What happens in practice? The wing directors are instructed, unofficially of course, to do all they can to “dump” the petitions. Maybe by dealing with the prisoner on a personal basis, or by getting him to understand that it’s not worth his while to submit one.

How is that done?

I personally escorted a Muslim prisoner who had put in a request to be granted a certain religious right. In his talk with the prisoner, the officer in charge made a veiled threat and said the man would be transferred to a different facility. That’s a real deterrent for inmates: having to start over in another prison. I was stunned. I told the officer that he was engaging in a criminal act. Naturally, I paid a price for that comment. I believed in using the tool of administrative petitions.

You need to understand something about prisoners. Even though we, as civilians, perceive them as threatening, in prison they are the weakest people in the world.


When an inmate came to me with a petition, I helped him phrase it, even though the clear message from the system was not to help and to reduce the scale of the phenomenon. They came to me with complaints: “How come you have so many petitions?” I didn’t tell them I was helping, only that prisoners had a right to petition. Afterward I understood that one of the criteria for gauging prison directors is the number of petitions that were submitted.

The system is out to protect itself.

One of the things I learned in political science is that every organization is influenced by its environment. In the prison service, in my opinion, the norms of the organization are influenced by the prisoners’ environment. For example, in the officers’ course, which is long and takes place in dormitory conditions, we had a roll call three times a day, just like the prisoners.

Why? Were they afraid you’d escape?

No, they just took the method of managing the prisoners and applied them to us. Are you counted three times a day in the army? There’s no such thing. I don’t think they [the prison staff] themselves are aware of it; it’s only people who come from the outside who notice. We were also not allowed to leave the premises where the course was held throughout the whole period. They wouldn’t even let us shop for ourselves in the nearby supermarket. Unfortunately, we could only eat in the dining room for officers in training.

It’s not so terrible there. After all, the public security minister, Amir Ohana, declared that prison service food is excellent and that the conditions in Abu Kabir [a Tel Aviv incarceration facility] are wonderful.

Obviously, because he ate in the officers’ dining room. The prisoners’ food is nothing to write home about, to put it mildly.

What do they teach Israel Prison Service officers? What’s the message about dealing with inmates?

You learn the organization’s procedures and do various simulations. I had all kinds of clashes with the system there, too. For example, one of the procedures the organization talks about in the officers’ course is strip searches. These involve completely disrobing the inmate and peering into all the most private parts of the body, including the anus. There’s a detailed protocol that defines when and how that search is conducted.

And under which circumstances: a prisoner who’s returned from furlough, a prisoners who deals in drugs, a suicidal prisoner.

Yes. To my amazement, I learned in the course that without exception, in all the jails, every inmate undergoes strip searches pretty routinely, based on a clause in the regulations that allows a prison guard to conduct one if there are “suspicious signs.” Well, the rationale for a strip search is understandable.

Jails constitute a conduit for drugs; dealers and their agents infiltrate them into prisons. But what about completely normative [non-drug using] people who are incarcerated? If you’re arrested tomorrow for tax offenses, you’ll undergo that brutal and humiliating search. The head of the officers’ course was very surprised when I questioned it and started to argue – she came up through the ranks of the prison service, so for her it was completely natural.

‘Bedbugs are no joke’

If that’s so, it’s extremely serious, of course. But in general, I suggest that we focus on systemic faults in this conversation, not on anecdotes.

Take the phenomenon of bedbugs, for example. One of the ways they get into the prison is by means of illegal transients – Palestinian detainees who often hide in all kinds of sewage or water pipes, are detained and bring parasites in [to the prisons] with their gear. I instituted a procedure whereby illegals who were arrested would be immediately sent to shower and issued a set of prison service clothes. The officials in charge of logistics and administration didn’t like that, because I created work for them – they had to keep renewing the stock of clothes – so I got a message to stop.

Tzalmon Prison.

Bedbugs are no joke. There were cases in which inmates reacted badly to the bites and had to be hospitalized. I looked into how the army deals with the problem. The prison commissioner, an amazing guy who actually supported me, agreed to buy a steam machine. I launched an all-out war on the bugs, to the point where the guards made fun of me. All the electrical infrastructure and the walls were swarming with tens of thousands of bugs. I was insistent. It’s an unacceptable situation that the prison service seemingly accepted.

That’s appalling, but it sounds like a lost cause.

Not so. Why are there no bugs in hospitals? In schools? In the army? The service just gave up. I would even say that it [dealing with the bugs] became part of the prison punishment.

In fact, I heard the same claim from a released inmate.

I want to remind you that an adviser to the prime minister complained about this subject to a judge. It’s all part of the illegitimate pressure that’s brought to bear on normative people [who are not necessarily criminals]: If you don’t cooperate, you’ll go back to the cell and be eaten alive by the bugs. By the way, even though the steam device was made available, not one of the other wing directors or other guards used it. The truth is that I can understand them, because they have an impossible load on their shoulders.

Please explain.

The number of procedures and requirements that prison service personnel have to obey is endless. Every such action has to be recorded in a special log, which serves as the legal and/or operational proof that you did what was required. The result is that an intra-organizational culture of lying and whitewashing has developed, because it’s impossible to carry out so many tasks during a shift. For example, three times a day you have to bang on all the bars and doors in the prison with a hammer. All distribution of food has to be supervised, to make sure that the strong don’t steal from the weak; two-and-a-half hours out of an eight-hour shift are supposed to be devoted to food distribution. There’s no way to do everything, so you check it off in the log and carry on.

One wing director told me explicitly, “My friend, the fact that something is listed in the log doesn’t mean it was done.” There’s also an evaluation committee, which is supposed to meet periodically to check each prisoner’s progress: whether he’s working, being rehabilitated and so forth. That’s really important. In practice, I saw that the officers in the wings simply take the list of names and feed them into the system, so that it looks as though the evaluation committee did its job if there is a review.

They just fill in the forms without even talking to the inmates, without holding a meeting?

Yes. What’s important is to create the impression that you did what was needed. I insisted on doing it by the book – a meeting with the social worker and the education officer; half an hour for each inmate. I was reprimanded for not keeping up with the schedule. Look, the guards are also under constant supervision and examination. The intelligence unit in the prison also checks you [i.e., the staff] out.

It sounds very tough, in fact it sounds as though the disparity between the experience of the guards and that of the prisoners is smaller than you might think.

The guards are under tremendous stress. They experience violence, which can be extreme and accelerate quickly from zero to 100. In the VIP protection unit [of the Shin Bet] I never had to struggle with anyone physically. In Tzalmon I experienced quite a few incidents of that kind. You have to get control of a prisoner who’s attacking another prisoner.

One time I was assaulted by prisoner who was going to slash my face. A huge knife was found in his pocket, which he had made from the lid of a large food can. It was a honed knife, 15 centimeters [5.9 inches] long. I witnessed an event in which an inmate suddenly attacked a guard, wounded him, broke his arm. The guard was bruised all over but wasn’t sent home, because a certain number of guards have to be present in the prison at all times. Some personnel work a day shift and go home – social workers, administrative staff, directors of wings and others. Others do a 27-hour shift and go home for 48 hours. Anyway you don’t really sleep at night in a prison: There are tasks to do.

Which tasks are carried out at night?

There’s no end to them. Checking that all the kitchen knives are in their place – you have to count them one by one. You have to go from cell to cell and wing to wing and count the prisoners. Filling in and reviewing the logs. Amid all this, detainees arrive in the middle of the night and have to be admitted. There are evacuations for medical reasons, unexpected events. There are searches of this or that unit. A thousand inmates is a whole city.

Israel is investing a fortune in incarcerated prisoners – we’re talking 15,000 shekels [$4,520] a month per prisoner – for nothing.


No cameras

Let’s go back to the fundamental issue here: the disparity between the system’s purported intention to rehabilitate inmates, and what actually happens with them.

The system doesn’t create conditions conducive to rehabilitation, because the system conducts itself violently and criminally. An offender who enters prison hardly needs to changes any of the behavior of the criminal codes he followed on the street, other than playing stupid games in the rehab workshops and the talks with the social workers, and declaiming slogans like “I’ve moved on.” He wants to get out of jail as soon as he can, and if that necessitates sitting in a circle and saying how remorseful he is – he’ll do it.

What do you mean that the system conducts itself by the codes of criminals. That’s a harsh statement.

For example, there’s what’s called the “place without cameras,” okay? I had an experience with an inmate who came from Abarbanel [a psychiatric hospital]. He objected to being moved and was transferred forcibly and arrived in the prison bleeding and rampaging. When I got there he just spat on me. In my face. The guards said, “We’ll take him to a place where there are no cameras and deal with him.” That’s a code. The guards know where there are no cameras, and if someone needs “educating,” they’ll take him there, so there’s no record of it. I wouldn’t let the guards touch him, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

What does “educating” mean? What’s meant by a place with no cameras? Are you sure that’s not just an anecdote?

It’s no anecdote. I spoke with guards from other prisons, and they all knew the term “a place without cameras.” It’s prison jargon. Another example: When a prisoner goes on the rampage in his cell, an operation is undertaken to get control of it. In a normative place, after you’ve taken control of the prisoner and handcuffed him, the event would be over. There wouldn’t be a need to exercise more violence. In practice, many times the prisoner will continue to be pummeled even after order is restored. That’s the “education” part.

The takeover procedure calls for the guards to enter first and then the officer. I didn’t agree to that. I went in first and got control of the prisoner. After I had him on the floor, the guards wanted to hit him. It took them time to understand that in my wing there was no violence once the inmate had been brought under control. You have him under control? End of story. That’s how an establishment of the law is supposed to operate. I want to believe that there are others like me, but from what I experienced, my impression is, to my great regret, that this norm is not considered to be of primary importance.

Are you saying guards vent their anger on prisoners, that they use excessive force?

Putting it mildly, I’d say that many times unreasonable force is used, beyond what is needed to get control and calm the situation.

What do the guards think of the prisoners? How do they talk about them among themselves? With contempt? With anger?

No. There are quite a few guards who are good people. The profile of a [typical] prison service guard is not that of a sadist. Absolutely not. They are people who do hard work under difficult conditions, and who are exposed to violence. When that’s your way of life for years, you become insensitive to the other; you lose a good deal of your compassion, because you are caught up in a rigid routine in a demanding system that is on your case nonstop. Nothing changes. One prisoner goes, another arrives. It’s not that you’ve finished dealing with all the inmates and now you can rest. It never ends.

The prisons are constantly subject to review, and there is a demand for them to implement very high requirements that are almost impossible. The guards have zero freedom of action, and in truth, it’s the same for the officers. A prison service officer, compared, let’s say, to a platoon commander in the IDF, has no freedom of action.

But can’t that deprivation of freedom of action be interpreted positively? Their discretionary power is limited because of the power relations, because the people under the staff’s authority are effectively helpless.

That’s true to a certain degree. The prisoner is at the guards’ mercy and is deprived of almost all his rights, so there has to be a high degree of oversight. But that’s not the case here. It’s inconceivable that the staff has no discretion in managing their time, in prioritizing their tasks. For them to be occupied all the time with prison service procedures at the expense of looking after the inmates.

Ofer Prison.

When you take away people’s own judgment and bombard them with insane numbers of procedures and instructions, you get robots that are occupied exclusively with executing their mission, and the inmate becomes part of the landscape and no more. He’s like the prison walls.

You know, the prisoners iron the guards’ uniforms. I noticed that they always went out of their way with my uniforms. One day, an inmate told me that the extra fold in my shirt and pants is also a code. It’s a sign for the inmates that this officer cares and tries to help them. That still resonates in my mind – every time I iron a white shirt for a court appearance, I remember the extra fold they did in my ironing.

That’s touching.


Security vs. social goals

So you think there’s no true rehabilitation – not even at the level of intention?

Let’s talk about the test of reality – that’s what I like to do best. How many ex-convicts end up back in prison?

The rate of recidivism in Israel is high, both relatively and in absolute terms.

Very high. When I took over the running of the facility, after being the director of a wing, many of the prisoners who had been in my wing and had been released – and I’d told them, “Well done, and don’t come back” – were back inside after a week or two.

Did you ask why?

Yes. For example, there was one inmate who had been jailed for domestic violence. He was truly a model prisoner. He was released and I felt happy for him. A few days later, I suddenly saw that he was back in prison. I asked him what had happened. He told me that he’d gone home, there was a situation, and here he was back again. He hadn’t received any tools for coping. He went back to the routine he was used to. You see them coming back a second, third, fourth time. I really and truly believe it’s because of the general approach.

The Israel Prison Service invests a fortune – and this, in my view, is really something very symbolic – to prevent prisoners from escaping. Dogs. Fences. More guards. More towers. The thing is that Israel is a small country, it’s easy to find you, on top of which most prisoners have no desire to escape at all. There’s a very small group of prisoners who have nothing to lose, and they are truly at risk for escaping.

Okay, but I still don’t think we would want to meet up with them.

For sure. If a security prisoner or a pedophile or a murderer or a rapist escapes from prison, that’s a problem. But what about all the others? Not all of them are a danger to society. The question is: What is the organization’s order of priorities? Where are the budgets diverted to? Maybe instead of spending money on insane protective measures, more could be spent on rehabilitation?

Not everyone is amenable to rehabilitation, but the great majority are. You can get an inmate to change his consciousness, his behavior. He can be taught to delay gratification, control his anger, feel empathy and compassion for the other – for people who were hurt because of him. If the system were primed to return the prisoner to society, that could be made to happen. But unfortunately the prison service is not society-oriented – it’s security-oriented. It’s more important for them to prevent a prisoner’s escape than to rehabilitate him – and also a lot easier. As long as the prison chiefs and wing directors are occupied with searching for drugs, checking the bars on the cells and conducting other searches, no one has the energy to deal with the essentials, with what we, the taxpayers, would like to see: namely, for the astronomical cost of maintaining prisoners, to at least bring about, at the end of the day, their return to a productive and societal circle.

On its website, the prison service describes itself as a security organization with a social goal. What do you mean when you say that it’s security-oriented and not society-oriented. What’s its interest there?

It’s convenient for the service to have the image of a security organization. There’s no other reason for having so many tributes and ceremonies with the singing of the national anthem and a beret on your head. Why is all that necessary? I am supposed to rehabilitate offenders who are supposed to get psychological treatment and social support. What does that have to do with salutes? The IDF and the Shin Bet know what their goal is: prevention and security. They don’t have psychological aims.

The prison service has a super-complex mission, but it has an inferior image and a kind of split personality. The service plays at being soldiers. When you come to work primed for battle, you won’t end up with rehabilitation. I think the organization knows that the security image will bring about working conditions and salaries comparable to those of the security bodies, as opposed to the social welfare services, where the compensation is minuscule. But a security organization has clear criteria for its effectiveness in preventing terrorism and instituting security, and the prison service lacks that. No commissioner was ever sent home for not meeting the goal of keeping inmates from returning to a life of crime.

Without a clear goal – in contrast, say, to reducing the number of people killed in traffic accidents – the organization is simply wasting the taxpayers’ money and the time of the staff and the prisoners. If it were an economic-business entity measured by the number of inmates who end up back in prison, it would have been considered bankrupt long ago. According to the so-called test of reality, it’s simply not working.

* * *

Haaretz sent the Israel Prison Service spokesperson’s unit a long list containing the claims made in this interview. The organization chose to ignore them and provided the following response: “In light of the fact that what we have is an ungrounded collection of accusations by someone or other, we will address only the facts: The Israel Prison Service is classified as a security organization by dint of government decisions and legislation. Reserve duty by guards takes place according to the regulations of the reserve service system.

“If intelligence is received about an inmate in a facility, it is dealt with as required by experts. The rest of the allegations do not warrant a response and their source apparently lies in bitterness, distortion of reality and a powerful desire to harm the national incarceration organization. The service’s guards will continue to do their work faithfully and for the benefit of the security of the residents of the State of Israel.”

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