20 Years After Infamous Military Prison Revolt, Reform Still Proves Hard Sell in Israeli Army

While things have improved for soldier inmates since 1997, some officers question why facilities at new military jail will be better than soldiers enjoy on army bases

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Some of the inmates of Prison 6 peering out of a window during the prisoners' rebellion in August 1997.
Some of the inmates of Prison 6 peering out of a window during the prisoners' rebellion in August 1997.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

What goes on in the Israeli military jails known as Prison 4 and Prison 6 is usually locked away, together with the soldier inmates. But one Saturday morning in August 20 years ago, some inmates became the center of media attention after they started a revolt. In protest against their treatment, they overpowered their commanders, took their radios and keys, and locked them in the dining hall. “They talk about the rebellion like it was the Bar Kochba revolt,” said Udi Segal, who was a prisoner in 2014 because of his refusal to serve in the army.

About three weeks ago, prison guards who were taken captive by the 1997 revolt leaders returned to Prison 6 to share their story with the current guards.

A female prison guard at Prison 6 who started her service just after the rebellion admits today that violence was used against inmates at the time, and that it was considered OK. “Today, the inmates are not the enemies of the instructors,” she said, using the Israel Defense Forces’ term for a prison guard. “They’re both soldiers,” she added.

Thousands of soldiers are locked up every year in the military prison system, which the army itself recognizes contains many flaws.

The data are barely believable: Male and female soldiers were sent to prison 17,160 times in 2016; in 2014, the figure was close to 20,000; while in 2013 there were more than 21,000 imprisonments.

Not everyone ends up in a military prison. Some are confined to rooms on Military Police bases in the division or the brigade – a form of detention less serious than military prison but more serious than confinement to base.

IDF Manpower Directorate Maj. Gen. Gideon Shefer with one of the prison guards who was held for 24 hours before being released at Prison 6 in August 2017.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

The goal of military prison was redefined last year as a measure of last resort. But the high number of imprisonments and testimonies by soldiers and commanders show that this is still not the case.

The rate of recidivism is high – between 30 and 35 percent – and despite the decline in first-time imprisonments, the number of soldiers imprisoned two, three, four or even five times has not altered.

‘Injected with poison’

Seventy percent of the soldiers behind bars were sentenced for being absent without leave, desertion or draft-dodging. Another 20 percent were sentenced for disciplinary infractions such as refusing an order or posting criticism of the army on Facebook and angering their commanders. The remaining 10 percent were convicted of a criminal offense.

“In my opinion, 90 percent of those sitting in jail shouldn’t be there,” a senior Military Police officer told Haaretz. “Some people call it ‘a babysitter for soldiers who couldn’t manage in the army.’ I don’t want a pilot or combat soldier with a disciplinary problem sitting with a rapist. That’s not right. He goes into prison, he’s exposed to violence – physical and verbal. He shouldn’t be injected with poison.”

The officer’s remarks are borne out by the daily reality of life in the military prisons, which operate on old British army bases. Visitors and inmates complain about the poor facilities, which could become a serious sanitation problem – damp and sometimes mold in some of the cells; cats and vermin gnawing on toilets and sinks.

Some of the Prison 6 inmates during the August 1997 rebellion.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

On a brief visit to Prison 6 near Atlit last week, personnel were clearly trying to present a positive image. Potted plants had been set out and a shade canvas was stretched out over the courtyard. The commanders called the facility a “detention base” and avoided using the term “prison.”

The army is hoping to address most of the defects in the military prisons with the move to a new facility currently being built near Beit Lid in central Israel. The military courts will also move to the new compound, named Neve Tzedek (“Oasis of Justice”), meaning soldiers will not have to be moved in handcuffs from the Military Police to the Military Advocate General and the courts – all will be contained within the compound. The number of inmates per cell will be cut from 10 to seven. Still, even in the new compound some inmates will have to live in tents. “It’s the army, after all,” a senior officer said.

Senior commanders criticized the project even during the planning stage, wondering how it was possible to justify better facilities in a military prison than on an army base. They are still criticizing today, noting that medical care in a military prison is better than in units, and that a soldier says he was never given any educational activities until he was behind bars.

The IDF General Staff initially set the completion date for the new compound at 2017. But by the time the cornerstone was laid, that date had already been pushed back a year. Now the IDF and Defense Ministry are looking at completion in 2020. Meanwhile, prisons with poor facilities continue to take in prisoners and the army is investing money mainly in cosmetic changes. For example, it was decided not to install air-conditioning in cells because of the cost; instead, two fans have been placed in each cell.

By 2020, the army plans to complete its prison reform. In light of the poor facilities and ineffectual rehabilitation (only 10 percent of soldiers remain in prison for more than 28 days), the first step will be to reduce the number of incarcerated soldiers.

“First of all, we dealt with the philosophical question: why are soldiers imprisoned?” a senior officer in the Manpower Directorate said. When senior commanders were told too many soldiers were being sent to jail, the message got through. For example, the senior officer said that in Central Command, the number of soldiers sent to prison has dropped by 30 percent. “Why did this happen? Because we set a goal of fewer prisoners,” he said, adding it did not necessarily mean that Central Command had a lower level of discipline because fewer infractions were being punished by prison terms.

Prison 6, near Atlit, in 2013. Its replacement is set to open in 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Alternatives to prison

The plan, reported here for the first time, includes comprehensive changes. The powers of commanders to sentence soldiers to military prison will be curbed, but they will be able to confine soldiers to base for longer periods.

There will also be alternatives to prison – for example, deserters will be subject to civilian sanctions such as not being allowed to leave the country. Prison facilities in the units themselves will be expanded and units will be evaluated by the number of soldiers being sent to prison, including comparative statistics to be presented to the IDF General Staff.

To get a real feel for a military prison, you have to visit “the wing.” Every military jail has such a place and at Prison 4 in Tzrifin, near Rishon Letzion, there is also a solitary confinement area, remote from the other cells, where prisoners are incarcerated in semi-isolation.

Each of the wing’s cells, none of which exceeds a few square meters in area, has iron bunk beds, a sink, a bathroom, a camera and a small window – with bars – onto the outside world. Other than religious texts, books are not allowed to be brought onto the wing. There is no leisure time for watching television or social activities, other than a period during which prisoners are allowed to go on walks. Sleeping is not allowed and the prison staff guarantees this by monitoring cameras. In several instances, other limitations were also imposed in the wing: For example, one prisoner was not allowed to stand; another, like refusenik Udi Segal, was forced to stare at a random spot in the cell. In its response, the army said these orders were contrary to the professional orders of the Military Police.

Those flouting the authority of the staff – through insolent behavior, violence or maybe refusing to wear prison garb – are ssent to the wing. Others sent there have expressed a desire to harm themselves. What this means in practice is that depressed inmates are sometimes put there on the recommendation of the mental health officer, even though it is a more difficult and isolated setting.

Prison 6 in 2002. A converted British army base.Credit: Nir Kafri

“Soldiers are not allowed to be left alone in a cell, so ‘good’ soldiers guard the soldiers in the wing, thereby preventing suicide attempts – like, for example, if he bangs his head on the wall or tries to hang himself, and there have been cases like that,” a female officer at the prison recounted. One prisoner will be required to guard a fellow inmate for four hours; then another prisoner arrives to replace him.

The inmates do not know how long they are to be confined to the wing. They are sent there on counselors’ orders, and it is only the changing of the “guards” that provides an indication of their time in the area.

Inmates are placed in the solitary+ confinement area about 500 times a year. There are no clear grounds provided for such an order, and prisoners’ lawyers claim it is resorted to far too easily.

Prison staff say it is not meant to serve as a punishment, but reports obtained by Haaretz from military defense lawyers who have attempted to identify the circumstances leading up to such confinements show there have been many cases in which it was the result of disciplinary issues.

This is in violation of the internal directives of the Military Police, which require that it be used “as an administrative and safety means, and not a disciplinary means.”

Former members of the military prosecution, now serving in the reserves as soldiers’ defense counsels, say true rehabilitation is not possible in military prison.

The perimeter wall of Prison 6, near Atlit, in 2002.Credit: Nir Kafri

Maj. (res.) Adi Rittigshtain Eisner, who has worked as a military defense lawyer, notes that military prisoners “have no possibility of appealing to the courts on matters related to the conditions of their confinement, and have no possibility of obtaining an expert opinion on the effect of their incarceration on the rest of their lives. All of this is directed at young people who have met their obligation to serve in the army and who, in the course of their service, have committed minor offenses or disciplinary” infractions.

In 2016, prisoners filed 73 complaints to the military ombudsman, mostly over harsh jail conditions, treatment by staff or over medical care in prison. Fifteen of the complaints were found to be justified. The inmates’ only option is to complain to the ombudsman or their lawyers – unlike civilian prisons, where there is also recourse to the courts. The matter was seen as problematic as long ago as 2012, but has still not been addressed.

Sorry picture

The rebellion 20 years ago by soldiers in Prison 6 was meticulously planned by its leaders, who were protesting the conditions of their confinement and their treatment. It revealed a sorry picture when it came to infrastructure and the scope of personnel at military prisons: overcrowding at double the standard rate; violent and brutal treatment; dilapidated and improvised facilities; and the placement of dangerous prisoners – murderers, rapists, drug dealers – with combat soldiers who had fallen asleep doing guard duty in Lebanon.

The agreement signed with the rebels – who were not to be tried for their actions or to be transferred to civilian prisons – was actually violated by the army, but the prisoners’ overall goals were achieved and conditions were substantially improved.

A lot has changed in military prisons since then, especially when it comes to the totally different treatment of inmates by prison staff. But many other major problems remained unaddressed. “Once, the prisoners had balls,” says one officer familiar with the situation. “Today, the primary form of protest is a Facebook post.”

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