Opinion |

The Culprit Is Always Underfunding

Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler
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The site where the escapees emerged from GIlboa Prison, last week.
The site where the escapees emerged from GIlboa Prison, last week.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler

Next week the cabinet will approve the establishment of a state commission of inquiry to investigate the escape the of six terrorists from Gilboa Prison, but we can already guess what the panel will find to be a major cause of this debacle: underfunding. The Israel Prison Service clearly wasn’t given enough money and was thus unable to guard the prisoners properly. After all, that’s always the case in the public sector, no matter the size of the budget or how much it’s increased. It’s always the fault of the Finance Ministry’s budget division.

As soon as it became clear that the guard tower directly above the exit of the tunnel through which the prisoners escaped was unstaffed at the time, a Prison Service official said it was due to insufficient funding. And what about the fact that the guard in the next tower had slept the sleep of the just during her shift? Also the budget’s fault. And why was the prison built on piles, creating a cavity beneath the floor? Because that’s all the budget allowed for. And why weren’t the lessons from the escape tunnel that was dug in 2014 learned? Because no funding was allocated for this.

And why weren’t the cellphone jammers in use? Because funding is needed to upgrade the technology. And why wasn’t there any intelligence? Because there’s no money. And why wasn’t there a perimeter patrol of the prison? Because there’s enough money for each officer to have a company car, but not enough for a perimeter security vehicle. And why were members of Islamic Jihad allowed to live together in the prison and run their own lives, in what amounted to an unsupervised autonomous zone? Okay, we get it, the budget is to blame for that, too.

The truth, of course, is the exact opposite. The Israel Prison Service doesn’t have a funding problem. Over the past decade, its budget has more than doubled, to 3.8 billion shekels ($1.2 billion) in 2020, from 1.8 billion shekels in 2009, even as the total inmate population fell. The agency simply decided to put the money into higher employee salaries and pensions instead of spending it on technological innovation and upgrading the physical plants of its facilities. As a result, our corrections facilities are an expensive, inefficient and primitive system that is generations behind Western standards. There weren’t even any security cameras on the walls.

Staffing levels in the Prison Service, in contrast, have ballooned. In the past decade it hired more and more corrections officer, eventually reaching the highest inmate-staff ratio in the world: two prisoners for each guard. In addition, because so many guards were sent to officers’ courses, in order to raise their salaries, the proportion of officers among prison staff also ballooned, to 21 percent – once again, the highest in the world.

This resulted in salaries rising as well, to 17,000 shekels a month on average, with officers earning 25,000 to 50,000 a month. The retirement age is low, 55 years on average, and one can only envy the retirement package – 4.7 million shekels, or three times the norm in the civil service.

The outcome of all this is that 80 percent of the service’s budget goes to salaries and pensions, and only 20 percent to equipment and technology, and there’s not enough left over for security.

It’s important to understand that the moment any agency focuses on itself and becomes too fat, it also becomes cumbersome and bureaucratic, and therefore, it has trouble doing its job. When the Israel Prison Service was constantly preoccupied with improving its employees’ salary and benefits, it forgot its main job – preventing jailbreaks. And that’s a sign of a mortally ill organization.

In 2018, a committee appointed by then-Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan recommended abolishing the autonomy prisoners enjoy in prison, so that Islamic Jihad, for instance, wouldn’t be able to concentrate its members in Gilboa Prison and wouldn’t be able to operate as a collective against the prison administration. But this recommendation was never implemented, because the Prison Service said it would spark a revolt that would endanger wardens’ lives.

Yet now, after the jailbreak, wonder of wonders, the service has finally done what it previously termed “impossible.” It dispersed Islamic Jihad prisoners among several facilities, and the move went quietly. In other words, it’s all a function of management – making decisions and carrying them out.

And because what happened revealed a blatant string of neglect and failures, the service needs an across-the-board revolution, which can’t be carried out by its current commissioner, Katy Perry. She bears responsibility for the snafu, and therefore, she must resign and make way for a new commissioner who won’t be burdened by the residue of the past.

That’s what would happen in the private sector. And it ought to happen in the public sector, too.

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