The Last Minute Before Privatization

The winners of the tender to run the private prison near Be?er Sheva speak loftily of wanting to serve society in Israel, but they will also want to serve the interests of their companies.

"For many years, we at the Finance Ministry used terms such as 'conversion' and 'civilianization' instead of 'privatization', and this helped us to push through decisions - because as we all know, when the public does not really understand what we are talking about, it is less likely to protest."

This confession was made last week by Professor Yitzhak Katz, head of the Ma'agar Mochot Survey Institute and a former treasury official, during a discussion at the Israel Democracy Institute about the first private prison that is being set up near Be'er Sheva. In a survey carried out in anticipation of the discussion, Katz, who is a sworn supporter of privatization, found that 60 percent of respondents were actually opposed to the government's decision to hand over authority - which so clearly belongs to government - to commercial companies, and that the poorer they were, the more opposed they were. Only one quarter of respondents whose income is below average supported privatizing the prison system as opposed to one half of above-average income earners.

The poor know why they are opposed. The private wardens will be allowed to use force, to carry out searches on and inside the bodies of prisoners, to send them to solitary confinement and to prevent them from meeting with a lawyer. Only white-collar prisoners will be able to fund petitions to the courts against such conditions in the jails. In general, the support of the top deciles for the principle of privatization is one of the reasons why such a significant and basic move has been taking place for more than three years almost without public discourse on the subject.

The supporters have two claims - a saving of 20 percent for the public coffers and less overcrowding. However, research in different parts of the world has not found unequivocably that privatization is indeed a saving. In Australia, for example, it was found that privatization had made imprisonment more expensive because of the need for supervision. In other countries, the savings ran from between 0 to 15 percent.

In Israel, people admit that the chief saving will come from manpower expenses, but not at the expense of its quality but rather from the fact that it will be replaced by technological means, and from "administrative flexibility," meaning the freedom to fire people and employ them on a temporary basis.

The conditions for the Israeli tender are good. They oblige the concessionaire to provide spacious cells, training, work, rehabilitation and education for the prisoners. It even determines how many calories are to be provided to the prisoner and from which source. The tender fixes a strict system of supervision by the Prisons Service. But the state's record in carrying out supervision is a sorry one. There is a plethora of evidence for this - from the supervision of television's Channel 2, to the way in which gas is stored and the supervision of old-age homes or institutions for the mentally disabled. The claim made by the supporters of privatization, that the state provides checks and balances, is no more than an illusion. The moves of privatization have their own dynamics.

For example, at the beginning, there was talk of adopting the French model in which only the prisons' logistic services would be privatized, such as food, laundry and classes. In the end, the British model was adopted in which the building and the operation of the prison are put in private hands. At the start, there was talk of a prison for 400 people and a franchise for a few years. In the end, it was agreed that there would be 800 prisoners, a franchise for 25 years and an option to build another prison.

The franchisees, the Africa-Israel and Minrav companies, assisted by an American company that operates prisons in Texas, speak loftily of wanting to serve society in Israel, but they will also want to serve the interests of their companies, and the danger is that what happened in the United States will also happen here - that the franchisees will turn into lobbyists for making punishment more severe.

Already now, electronic handcuffing of prisoners who are sent to home detention as an alternative to imprisonment is being carried out by a private company. The police recently published a tender for the private building and operation of a national training center for policemen. From certain points of view, the train has already been missed. The construction of the prison will be completed this year, unless an expanded bench of the Supreme Court stops it with a ruling it is expected to hand down in the near future in reply to a petition against the privatization.

Attorney Gilad Barnea, who submitted the petition on behalf of the Academic College of Law in Ramat Gan and former Prisons Service officer Shlomo Toiser, regards the petition as the last step before the dam breaks open completely. In the next stage, the judges who consider the petition will also be employed by a contractor, he warned.

But, perhaps, it is nevertheless still not too late. Two years ago, the government of New Zealand took into its own hands the first private prison facility in that country and passed a law that forbade the privatization of prisons. It was in New Zealand, which had virtually made a religion out of privatization, that they realized that there has to be a limit.