An Open Education, Behind Bars

A new program offering scholarships to prisoners serving time for criminal offenses has boosted the overall number of inmates enrolled in courses that may help them turn their lives around

"Who knows Claude Levi-Strauss?" Dr. Efrat Nuni-Weiss, a lecturer in anthropology at the Open University, asked her students. Unlike the other classes she teaches, this one has only male students, all dressed in orange uniforms - inmates at Ayalon Prison in Ramle.

Prisoners- Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

"Sure I know Levi Strauss," one inmate replied from the back row with a smile, "he sentenced me to 10 years."

The class dynamic would be familiar to any student: In the back row sit the older inmates, alert but not dedicated, while at the front of the room are the eager students, who hang on the teacher's every word, trying to anticipate what she is about to say and enlighten their classmates with knowledge garnered from their preparatory reading.

Out of 45,000 students who began studying at the Open University last month, some 270 are behind bars. Foremost among these is the group at the Ayalon Prison's learning center, which meets every week. Similar groups gather at Shata, Eshel and Ma'asiyahu prisons. These students are enrolled in a relatively new program, which for the first time offers scholarships to inmates incarcerated for criminal offenses in Israel. Before the program was introduced, at the start of 2008, only security prisoners were eligible for any kind of tuition aid, most coming in from the Palestinian Authority.

Inmates have been enrolled in the Open University of Israel since 1978. Those who get the prison service's permission to study have no entrance requirements; they just take the same exams and pay the same tuition as students on the outside: NIS 1,900 per course, on average, for a bachelor's degree. They cover the payments from their savings and with help from their families.

There are some 8,500 criminal prisoners and 6,200 Palestinian security prisoners in Israel today (there are also thousands of prisoners who are remanded in custody, pending further proceedings, who naturally are not engaged in academic study ). Two years ago, an estimated 200 security prisoners, and only 20 criminal prisoners, were enrolled in academic courses (the Israel Prison Service does not publish official data ). After the scholarship program began, the number of inmates with criminal offenses who enrolled at the Open University tripled, to 60. The 40 who joined under the new program receive a subsidy of two-thirds of their tuition, which is provided in equal parts by the Open University and the prison service.

'I was ashamed'

The university employs a correspondence-course method, and examiners are brought into the prisons, but the students there do not have access to the Internet or a comprehensive library, and thus cannot sign up for courses that require special supplementary study materials. The prison service also bars them from studying life sciences, exact sciences and computer science.

Nor can inmates attend regular weekly meetings with mentors on the university's campuses, as other students do. Aside from the scholarships, this is the program's main novelty: Inmates get to attend group sessions with a coordinator from the university, who comes to the prison once a week and spends two hours with them, answering questions and providing a focus, as well as contextual and thematic structure for the course. The weekly encounter is a significant component in the life of regular students, and all the more so for prisoners.

Shmuel Choskin, 27, from Be'er Sheva, was sentenced six years ago to 15 years in prison (the prison service asked that details of the crime remain confidential ). Choskin was invited during the past year to join the scholarship program, and has very successfully completed courses in international relations and introductory law.

"I never imagined that I would study anything," he says, during a meeting in the library at Ayalon Prison. "I arrived here a stutterer and a diagnosed dyslexic - not knowing how to read or write. That hurt me throughout my life. I was ashamed of it. I didn't take tests in high school." In his last course, he received a final grade of 84. "The fact that I've come as far as I have today - it's a really big deal," he adds.

In the absence of adequate materials and other conditions for studying, says Choskin, he relies on his family and girlfriend: "I don't have much, but it's all a matter of will power. We have no access to the Internet, so at most I can sit on the telephone with my partner, who'll read me summaries off the Internet, or print them and bring them to me when she visits. I also can't sit down with others who are in the program with me, because everyone is dispersed throughout the wards. There is also a policy about which books you're allowed to order. But generally they [the prison officers] try to be as helpful as they can."

Choskin's dream is to study business administration after he gets out, and he also says his experience with the Open University has provided him with some "very important insights regarding my life."

At first glance, the large gap between the numbers of criminal and security prisoners enrolled in Open University courses - like the significant leap in the number of criminal prisoners since the new program was launched - would appear to be largely a function of funding: Whereas criminal inmates were not awarded tuition scholarships until two years ago, the Palestinian Authority office in charge of prisoner affairs has partially funded tuition for security prisoners for some time now.

The prison service talks about expanding the program and increasing the number of scholarships over the next few years, but in the same breath adds that the very existence of the new program and the rising number of criminal offenders enrolled in it do not depend solely on tuition scholarships. The spokesman's office says that many of the inmates were brought into the new program at the initiative of the service's education officers, who also invest tremendous effort in keeping them from dropping out. Furthermore, the background of many of the inmates must be taken into account, as it significantly reduces the number of people eligible for an academic program.

According to the prison service, the new program emerged as a natural extension of the rehabilitation and education tracks offered in penitentiaries, which begin with literacy courses and end - or did until recently - with high-school matriculation exams. In 2009, 553 prisoners took Education Ministry exams, a 9 percent increase over the previous year. Many prisoners receive vocational training certificates and participate in unaccredited courses run by the Prison Service on parenting and family matters, the arts, sports, health and so forth.

In the absence of similar educational programs for security prisoners, the Open University courses play an important role in their lives, says Abeer Baker, a lawyer with Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, who also directs the Prisoner Rights and Reentry Clinic at the University of Haifa law school.

"Studying at the Open University provides one of the only ways for them to occupy themselves, because they are not granted social services like the criminal prisoners," she says.

Paying their dues

A year ago the prison service prohibited families from sending books to inmates, for fear of contraband being smuggled in, and for lack of space in the cells. Aside from the prison canteen, which Baker says "sells books at Steimatzky prices" (that is, retail ), and the Red Cross, which supplies only novels, the main source for high-quality reference books is the Open University Press. Baker adds that the university's books reach a large number of people, well beyond the 210 security prisoners who are enrolled in courses.

Qaddoura Fares, who is chairman of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Prisoner Club, and represents the security prisoners and their families, notes that the large number of security prisoners who are taking university courses - compared to that of criminal prisoners - also stems from a greater motivation on their part to be rehabilitated and to learn: "A criminal does not want to study," he declares.

Security prisoners began enrolling in Open University programs only in 1994, following a hunger strike two years earlier. Among the prominent security prisoners who have taken such courses since then is Samir Kuntar, the Lebanese terrorist who in a 1979 attack in Nahariya was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis. Kuntar started studying for a master's degree before he was released in a prisoner exchange deal in 2008.

Both the prison service and the Open University tread carefully when it comes to the matter of security prisoners, particularly at a time when legislators, publicists and activists working for the release of Gilad Shalit are seeking to deny them "summer camp privileges," as they put it, such as university studies. The service declined to comment on the issue for this article.

Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, the president of the Open University, said in a statement: "We welcome the fact that the state and the Israel Prison Service permit inmates to take advantage of the possibilities the Open University offers for studying anywhere and anytime, and the investment in education that can contribute to rehabilitating prisoners. At issue are prisoners who are interested in being rehabilitated and creating for themselves a chance to become integrated after paying their debt to society."

Baker of Adalah says the Prison Service benefits from the Open University classes offered to students, even if it won't admit it. The possibility of studying has a positive influence on prisoners' conduct, she says. Moreover, she says prison authorities treat studying as a privilege that may be withdrawn, and is hence an effective means of discipline: "The studies are exploited by the prison service as a sensitive point. They have a light finger on the trigger when it comes to limiting the studies. It's a punishment that is very easy to use."

Galia Nitzani, an attorney in the Public Defender's Office, says that taking courses is part of "the privileges 'credo' that is applied to everything in jail - furloughs, early visitation rights, rehabilitation, education, everything. It was ratified by the courts, but we think it is highly problematic and are trying to generate judicial change with regard to it. Every person is entitled to education, whether he is a prisoner or a free man. Why use this against him as a type of whip, in case of violations?"

The prison service says in response: "The procedure, when it is carried out, is done in a controlled and considered manner, which involves the courts' view on the matter, a view that speaks for itself."

There are prisoners who say they have changed their worldviews following their studies. Baker tells of a Palestinian who was given a life sentence and underwent an ideological change in prison, largely as a result of reading Open University books delivered by his family. "The inmate requested that the court declare that he was not affiliated with any organization, and had no problem publicly declaring that he did not believe in violence as a method for resolving the conflict," she says.

R., another Palestinian who studied at the Open University while incarcerated in Israeli prisons, says: "I was among those prisoners who became convinced that the Jews also suffered throughout history, like the Palestinians are suffering now, and that the solution now is for us to live together in one country." However, he adds, there is a difference in attitude between prisoners who belong to the Fatah movement, for example, and those from Hamas. "For example, there is a course that will say that the Zionist movement is a liberation movement, which is something that people do not want to accept. While there are some prisoners who pay attention to the contents of the studies, others study only for the diploma."

A list of the courses popular among prisoners attests to a syllabus that is generally selected with care. Topping the list are "Introduction to Middle Eastern History in the Modern Era"; "Islam: Introduction to the Religion's History"; "Genocide"; "Basic Concepts in International Relations"; "The Middle East Between the World Wars"; and "Arab Society in Israel."

In 2002 prison authorities tried to bar security inmates from taking 30 specific courses, including some of those listed above, but a petition by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel thwarted that effort. Now the prison service of its own initiative is offering some of those same courses to inmates with criminal offenses.

"The public needs to know how much those people need to study," Baker says, referring to security prisoners, "especially when they are prevented from participating in any other activity in jail and are locked up in their room for 23 hours a day. It benefits both the prisoners and the public. In general, an inmate who reads and studies will also know how to assume responsibility. Prisoners aren't going to 'sober up' by watching Channel 1 or 2, only from reading."