The words “Israeli prison” probably don’t conjure images of meditation rooms or petting zoos, but a new episode of MSNBC’s “Lockup: World Tour” introduces viewers to these and other “glowing” aspects of Israel’s prison system.

Welcome to the Israeli Prison Service. (photo credit: Matt Lebovic)

Welcome to the Israeli Prison Service. (photo credit: Matt Lebovic)

Since 2005, the popular Lockup series has probed prison life in the United States and around the world. The World Tour spin-off’s Israel episode first aired in May, and will re-air twice this weekend. While recent World Tour episodes in Europe and Asia focused on dire conditions in a chilling array of Cold War-era prisons, the show’s first Middle East episode, in Israel, struck a different cord.

Almost 18,000 prisoners fill the Israel Prison Service’s 32 correctional facilities, with more than two-thirds of convictions related to drug or property crimes. Jews and Israeli-Arabs are housed in the same facilities, and sometimes share a cell as roommates. Israel has its fair share of white-collar crime and auto theft, but national rates for homicide, rape and other violent crimes are lower than in most developed countries.

Producers interview inmates and staff at each prison with an eye toward explaining why Israel’s recidivism rates are among the lowest in the world

The hour-long Lockup episode features visits to three Israeli prisons: Rimonim, Israel’s largest maximum-security prison; Neve Tirza, the only facility for women, and Hermon, known as “the largest therapeutic community in Israel.” Lockup field producers interview inmates and staff at each prison with an eye toward explaining why Israel’s recidivism — repeat-offender — rates are among the lowest in the world.

Not only does Israel maintain fewer prisoners per capita than most Western countries, but released inmates achieve high levels of reintegration into society. Recidivism rates in the US and Europe hover at 75%, with rates in Israel as much as 20% lower. Israeli prisons themselves are less crowded than in most countries, in part due to the release of thousands of Palestinian “security” prisoners in recent years.

A thread running through Lockup’s Israeli prison interviews is the ability of education, skills-development and job placement to prevent repeat offenses.

Ramla Prison, the setting for the 'Lockup' series' look at the Israeli prison system. (photo credit: Matt Lebovic)

Ramla Prison, the setting for the ‘Lockup’ series’ look at the Israeli prison system. (photo credit: Matt Lebovic)

At Hermon Prison in the Galilee, all inmates agree to participate in daily group therapy sessions. Inmates are housed according to their offenses, and prison social workers refer to them as “residents,” not inmates. The Lockup narrator notes that Hermon looks more like a college campus than a prison, with freedom of movement for inmates who choose to serve their time “therapeutically.”

As Israel’s only prison for women, Neve Tirza houses just over 200 inmates. Lockup producers were surprised to encounter prison facilities including a petting zoo and meditation room with glow-in-the-dark fish tanks. Inmates are seen teaching each other dance, producing art, and even nursing their babies in the prison’s fully-equipped ward for new mothers.

‘We don’t feel we are in a prison’

“We don’t feel we are in a prison,” says a new mother as she brings her baby to meet its father during a monthly conjugal visit. Neve Tirza also boasts a rare “vacation” program, with selected inmates receiving monthly furloughs of up to three days. Women account for just two-percent of Israel’s prison population, as opposed to almost nine-percent in the US, with most serving time for drug-related offenses.

Though noting Israel’s Rimonim Prison maintains more than 700 surveillance cameras and a dog-patrolled perimeter fence, the Lockup episode barely touches on Israeli prison security measures. Producers are most captivated by the warm relations between inmates and officers, and the resemblance of the prison to a “fraternity house.”

With 1,200 prisoners, Rimonim allows family members to live communally. Some Israeli-Arab “crime families” share a cell of up to six people, with the largest incarcerated Bedouin family boasting twenty members housed in one wing. The families are given leeway to manage their own affairs, a key factor contributing to prison security and inmates’ well-being, according to Rimonim Prison Commander Chen Benderli.

New Rimonim inmates are permitted to bring their clothes, appliances and other personal items with them to prison. Most inmates cook for themselves in communal kitchens, and prison staff eat food prepared by inmates. Jewish and Arab inmates socialize freely with guards, shaking hands and trading jokes in what Lockup producer Kimberly Greenhut called “a very social and very festive environment.”

Jewish and Arab inmates socialize freely with guards, shaking hands and trading jokes in what one Lockup producer called ‘a very social and very festive environment’

“I feel like I am in a hotel,” says one Israeli-Arab inmate as he shows the camera around a spacious cell with kitchen equipment, bookshelves and private bathroom area. “Nothing is lacking.”

Israeli prisons have earned international accolades for innovation in both physical design and rehabilitation programs. At Tzalmon Prison — not featured in the episode — inmates spend most of the day outside their cells, in possession of cell keys and travelling between “campus” facilities for work, sports, dining, etc. A landscaped inner courtyard maintained by inmates allows visiting families to meet in a peaceful atmosphere, a sharp contrast with Hollywood prison-yard scenes.

Lockup producers were consistently surprised by the level of coziness and normality found in Israeli prisons. Israeli-Arabs are interviewed about their lives in Hebrew, with paintings of large pomegranates and Disney characters filling the walls behind them. One Israeli-Arab inmate spoke about pranks he pulls on the guards, including pilfering cell phones from under their noses and returning them with a laugh.

Rounding out visits to the women’s prison and Hermon’s “therapeutic campus,” Lockup producers also toured Rimonim’s unit for religious Jews. Observant inmates enjoy guided Torah study and communal prayer throughout the day, with many non-observant prisoners seeking admittance to the admittedly tranquil, yeshiva-like ward. One inmate explained the significance of a mezuza on each doorframe as a reminder that even prisons can be holy.

One inmate explained the significance of a mezuza on each doorframe as a reminder that even prisons can be holy

Most international news coming from Israeli prisons has nothing to do with Torah learning or rehabilitation programs designed to make inmates self-sufficient. Palestinian hunger strikes and prisoner exchanges with Hamas make the headlines, along with ongoing accusations about “atrocities” committed in Israeli prisons.

Defying the atrocity narrative, more than one convicted Hamas terrorist has been known to post on Facebook from a personal 3G smartphone, showcasing an upgraded cell with soccer banners, pets and stereo equipment. When not enjoying satellite Arab television, other “security” inmates use smartphones to help friends pick out clothes to bring them in prison. Many of Israel’s 5,000 Palestinian prisoners receive living stipends totaling $100 million a year from the Palestinian Authority — if they were convicted of violence against Israelis, that is.

Inmates of all backgrounds interviewed by Lockup appear more candid and hopeful about their future than prisoners typically encountered by the show, producers noted. “They save lives here” and “I discovered my soul in prison” are typical comments of Hermon Prison inmates, many of whom are shown engaged in academic learning or practicing a trade.

Israel’s prison system owes much of its current status to improvements undertaken during the 1990s, following passage of Israel’s Basic Law for Human Dignity and Liberty. The so-called “rights revolution” and an activist High Court helped transform Israeli prisons into facilities with relative harmony and ample rehabilitation opportunities, as well as places to which fewer inmates return for second stays.

“An enlightened society is judged by the treatment of its prisoners,” said then-High Court President Aharon Barak. “The prisoner has committed a crime and has been punished accordingly; his liberty has been taken away, but the human essence still remains. The prison walls must not come between the prisoner and human dignity.”

Police headquarters in Ramla. (photo credit: Matt Lebovic)

Police headquarters in Ramla. (photo credit: Matt Lebovic)