Friday, April 28, 2000
Helping bad boys be better
By Dan Williams
The Jerusalem Post - April 28, 2000
Dan Williams spends a day at Sharon Prison's juvenile ward and talks to the boys and their caretakers about rehabilitation
A seat was left vacant at the Seder held in Sharon Prison's juvenile ward last week in memory of 17-year-old D., who had hanged himself in his isolation cell three days earlier.
The ward staff insisted on the gesture, having noticed that their own consternation at D.'s drastic act was not shared by the inmates.
"The boys accepted the suicide with equanimity," says Betty Lahat, warden of Sharon Prison. "They think he was very brave, and he's become something of an admired figure."
D., who was serving a two-year sentence for assault, was put into isolation after almost killing another inmate in a fight.
"The others know that D. always carried everything to the extreme, and now they figure that he just wanted to end it all," Lahat adds.
Though suicides are rare events at the ward, according to its director, Itamar Yefet, at any one time there are about 30 boys on the "danger list." These are closely monitored to make sure they don't harm themselves or others, and anything in their possession that could be used as a weapon is confiscated.
Nonetheless, Lahat says, if an inmate is determined to kill himself, ultimately he will succeed. Besides, she says, the problem exists well beyond the prison walls. Conversations with her own teenage son have convinced her that "boys of this age haven't any value for life."
This truism seems to be borne out by the fact that Israel has no similar facility for girls.
And the hazards of puerile recklessness and rebellion are magnified tenfold at the Sharon Prison's juvenile ward, the country's only facility for under-aged felons. That's why, say both Lahat and Yefet, a special mix of vigilance, strictness, and sensitivity is required at all times.
THERE are approximately 100 boys aged 14 to 17 at the ward, the number varying as arrested juveniles are brought in for lockup pending trial. They are kept in complete isolation from Sharon's 400 adult inmates.
Most of the young convicts are serving three month- to three-year terms for larceny or drug offenses, some four- to seven-year terms for rape, a handful 25 years for murder.
The ward is divided into three cell blocks: Brosh is the most spare, housing new arrivals and inmates who have been punished or isolated from the others for their own protection, while Erez and Gefen are decorated and more comfortable, allowing the inmates to mingle.
The boys bunk two to a cell, but sometimes a third friend will sleep on a mattress on the floor.
Apart from the bars in the windows, the cells, with their music posters, pin-ups, and coffee paraphernalia, recall the accommodation at many Israeli boarding schools.
Most of the boys come from broken homes, Yefet says, where they never learned the importance of trust.
"From the beginning, we match each with a cellmate we feel will not influence him for the worse, and with whom he can develop a rapport," he says.
Often, Yefet adds, a boy will warn the staff if his cellmate is feeling despondent or is at risk of committing suicide because of a fight he had with the others, helping prevent tragedy.
Roll-call, lock-up, and lights-out is at 9 p.m., and at 7 a.m the inmates are woken up for breakfast. The food - standard three-course fare, much like at kibbutzim or army bases - is delivered from the main prison refectory, and the boys are also given snacks throughout the day.
Twice a month, they can buy their own supply of chocolates, chips, and other junk food at a canteen set up especially for them. Chewing gum, however, is off-limits, lest it be used to block up keyholes.
The boys' currency is tokens they earn for good behavior or for doing errands around the compound. They are also awarded for attending matriculation classes given by teachers from the ORT school system, at an enviable ratio of eight pupils to a teacher.
There are further education opportunities in the weight room, in the kitchen, and, as of this month, in the NIS 300,000 computer room.
"To us, one juvenile inmate is like 10 adult prisoners in terms of expense, but there's no other choice," says Yefet. "Look outside, at how much is invested in children; their schooling, clothes, activities. We have to give these kids the same investment so they can return to the world."
"FOR YOUTHS, the whole legal system is different," says Prisons Service spokeswoman Levana Levy-Shay. "From the courts, the social services, to the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry's juvenile department, they separate them from other criminals."
More than 30,000 police files involving juveniles were opened in 1999, up 8 percent from the previous year, completing a decade in which youth crime rose significantly every year. However, Dep.-Cmdr. Suzy Ben-Baruch, head of the Israel Police Juvenile Crime Section, says that the statistics paradoxically reflect the success of enforcement efforts.
"Following all the murders of children by children over the past two years - in Rishon Lezion, Upper Nazareth, and Jerusalem - there was a national outcry, and we increased our staff and operation," she says.
"Because there is more work in the field, more crime is uncovered."
The police's Unit for Preventing Youth Crime has been doubled in size, and the 70 juvenile units nationwide have been beefed up with volunteers, social workers, and special agents who monitor street gangs.
Moreover, six new regional detective units have been opened, and half have already infiltrated some 200 high schools to break up drug rings.
Dr. Malka Alek of Bar-Ilan University's psychology faculty concurs with Ben-Baruch's assessment.
"I think there is more crime," she says, "but there is also greater awareness and concern, and greater willingness to uncover criminal incidents by agencies that feared they would be seen as not so good; for example, schools that feared the bad press of exposing crimes in their midst."
Alek believes the various agencies dealing with troubled youths - the welfare officers, the boarding schools and halfway homes - should coordinate their efforts better. However, at the same time, she notes approvingly that the system uses incarceration in the juvenile ward only as a last resort.
THOSE inmates who turn 18 before serving out their sentence are transferred to a normal penitentiary, sometimes joining the adult inmates of Sharon Prison.
Otherwise, there is no overlap between the two prisoner communities. Even arranging for the boys to use the prison's sports pitch requires elaborate coordination to ensure they don't come into contact with their grown-up counterparts.
This confinement, says Yefet, is a deliberate effort to turn the ward into "a sort of greenhouse," where a new sense of responsibility and pride can be cultivated in the boys before they are returned to normal society.
The exception to this is the Shalhevet program, where an adult convict near the end of his term and who has passed a special training course speaks with the youths, offering himself as a cautionary example of where crime leads. There are also three psychologists on staff to provide counseling.
Given that many of the inmates have never had proper adult attention, they sometimes initially respond to the discipline with reflex rebellion.
According to Yefet, one favored form of inmate protest is carving their arms with pieces of wire.
Recently, one boy bit a guard.
Lahat says the staff members have to be unyielding in punishing the boys, but are careful to be encouraging at the same time.
"If you give them a punishment, say isolation for a boy who threw boiling water on another inmate, they don't believe they'll come out of it," she says.
"They can begin to despair. You have to give them reason to be optimistic, tell them they'll get another chance."
The younger the criminal the more chance there is at rehabilitation, says Yefet, adding that once the boys reach their twenties the process gets harder. "At a young age, a boy is impressionable, he finds it hard to make decisions. But if you manage to get through to him, you get through all the way."
"GOD WILLING, my four-year sentence will be cut for good behavior," says Z., a soft-spoken 17-year-old who hopes to begin a career as a graphic designer.
He chats about the computer classes, the once-monthly visits from his siblings, and the tolerable schnitzel sandwiches. But he declines to discuss the reason for his incarceration - rape.
Similarly, 15-year-old S., who got 25 years for molesting and murdering a five-year-old girl, is reluctant to discuss his crime. He prefers to complain about the fact that Lahat, fearing he'll try to escape, has confined him to his cell block until the ward's main quadrangle is covered with fencing.
Lahat and Yefet are careful to treat sexual offenders, and other inmates whose crimes are especially repugnant, with the same decency afforded all the boys. But this does not mean the crime is forgotten.
"As long as he denies committing it, we don't even let him leave for furloughs," Lahat says. "And when he finally admits to it, he starts going though group therapy, run by a specialist in juvenile sex crimes.
"It's a very long-term process."
"Maybe he'll be able to get over his problem," adds Yefet.
"Maybe, thanks to treatment available here in the prison, where, after all, he'll spend six or seven years of his life, he'll develop some sort of mechanism to make sure there won't be another victim who suffers."
Alek claims such optimism is unfounded. "Imprisonment (in the juvenile ward) is completely worthless in terms of rehabilitation and treatment," she says. "The prison sentence is a sort of surrender."
Levy-Shay confirms that there is no reason to believe that Israel's 70 to 75 percent recidivism rate does not equally apply to juvenile convicts.
Nonetheless, the staff at the Sharon Prison juvenile ward remain determined to focus on that quarter-chance of rehabilitation.
"We'll give each inmate all the services available," says Yefet. "I don't see it as an indulgence, or that the institution is too pleasant or nice.
"We want to return him to society, if not completely reformed, then at least somehow improved."