The soft side of the slammer

The soft side of the slammer

Now in its 10th year, the IDF's military police rehabilitation unit, Gahelet, tries to bend the arc of prisoners' lives

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A Gahelet instructor with an IDF inmate (photo credit: courtesy IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A Gahelet instructor with an IDF inmate (photo credit: courtesy IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Inbal Shalev, 20, a freckled corporal with a chestnut braid, has had some difficult moments as a teacher in the army’s largest prison. There was the time the air conditioning didn’t work in the mess hall and she was forced to stand before 90 hot and uninterested prisoners and teach them about the late Israeli folk singer Naomi Shemer – somewhat akin to preaching the gospel of John Denver at Rikers Island.

And there was the time, this past November, when she tried to rally the inmates to come out of their cells and participate in a memorial ceremony for the slain prime minister Yitzkak Rabin – “and none of the soldiers were willing to leave their cells because all of them think he deserved to be murdered,” she said.

They told her that she was a leftist from a leafy moshav who understood nothing and that the country had done nothing for them; that they didn’t feel Israeli and didn’t care what Rabin might or might not have done in the service of the state.

“I stood there, and while generally I try to make a division [between the professional and the personal] in this case I stood there and went one by one among the inmates arguing with them,” she said in an office at the IDF’s Prison Four, located just outside Rishon Lezion. “And I really, in that instance, reached the point where I yelled at some of them: how dare they speak that way about my country.”

Afterward, one prisoner came up to her and said that she had been right. He still didn’t agree with Rabin’s views, he said, but it was important to conduct the ceremony. “I said, ‘Eliyahu, I did this for you,'” she recalled, breaking into relieved laughter.

Shalev is one of 60 handpicked female soldiers and five female officers who compose Gahelet – the rehabilitative wing of the IDF’s prison system. The soldiers interview, educate, and intervene in the lives of 90 percent of those incarcerated for over 28 days –roughly 13,000 Israeli soldiers every year.

Captain Lea Itzik, a career officer who decided to come back to the army after getting a degree in rehabilitative criminology, described the intake process. As head of the unit’s evaluation department, she is in charge of the crucial first step, the interview. There is nothing in the cubicle, she said, but “a chair, a desk, and a chair.” The interviewer, a teenaged female soldier who is “chosen with tweezers” from the general population and armed with a three-month training course, is then required to get the life story of the person opposite her.

“She asks difficult questions,” Itzik said. “She knows about him more than his best friend knows about him.”

Cpt. Lea Itzik at the IDF's Prison Four (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Cpt. Lea Itzik at the IDF’s Prison Four (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Asked to describe a recent case, Itzik said that one of her soldiers recently interviewed a female soldier who has been sexually assaulted several times. She has undergone “more than one abortion.” Her mother has a mental disorder. On many occasions, she has found herself thrown out of the house without advance notice. She has a younger sister, two dogs, and no home. She is, like 75 percent of the inmates, in prison for desertion.

Itzik’s soldiers record all of the information. Then they take the file to Itzik, who checks the facts of the story with the state authorities and the relevant army officers. And already then, when they are still in prison, “I can start to unfurl the fan,” she said.

In this case, the fan of options included contacting the relevant officer in the manpower division to see if the soldier in question can be considered a lone soldier, earning her certain privileges, even though she lives with a sister who, although younger than she is, is already a legal adult; and offering her a high-school-diploma-track, a course in art therapy, where she’ll be asked to draw a self-portrait, and a women’s empowerment seminar. “And that’s a case study,” she said. “I have 180 of these a week.”

Gahelet, celebrating its tenth year of existence, often processes more prosaic stories: soldiers who hate their direct commanders; soldiers who borrowed money from the wrong people; soldiers who feel they are wasting their time serving the common good. In those instances, Itzik said, she can re-post the soldier to a different position if she believes it will keep him or her out of jail and on the path to an honorable discharge. She can sign the soldier up for a money management seminar, and she can try to alter his outlook on the necessity of a draft and a people’s army by taking him, in dress uniform, to Ben-Gurion’s grave or to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

Some of the inmates, though, know the drill: if they cause enough trouble, and go to prison enough times on disciplinary charges, the army will eventually open its iron doors and expel them into the civilian world prematurely. Itzik would not say how often that happens but, overall, one out of every six soldiers does not complete his or her service.

The road out of Prison Four (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
The road out of Prison Four (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

“Look, we don’t hand out candies,” Itzik said of the unit. The soldiers are, by virtue of their incarceration, exposed to the “pains of imprisonment,” she said, stripped mentally and emotionally. Their position in society and rank is rendered useless. They are forced to wear prison garb – in this case, an old US army uniform, a practice which continues despite American disapproval – in order to symbolize that they have been separated from the larger society of the Israeli army. Itzik described the inmates as “not on the edge of a precipice [but] in the abyss. In jail. Some say they don’t want to touch that hot potato. We hug that hot potato.”

The prisoners see only their current predicament, she said. Many of them want to be released into the civilian world, where desertion is not a crime but an indication of a poor work ethic. “But I think, where will they be five years from now?”

Sitting with a soldier who wants to come before the discharge board, she depicts the army as a road that takes 36 months for men to travel 24 for women. Those who exit early are putting themselves on course for failure, she said. Those who stay the course will re-enter society as firsts among equals. “Take responsibility,” she said. “It’s your life. I can help you but you need to take responsibility.”

Part of the process starts in the classroom. Prison Four’s Company C, on the day this reporter visited, was learning about Israel. Surprisingly, Cpl. Shalev kept 30 inmates involved in a dynamic class about Israeli identity in a classroom decorated with posters of Theodor Herzl and the Declaration of Independence.

An educational initiative in Prison Four, where the walls are decorated with verses of Hebrew poetry (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
An educational initiative in Prison Four, where the walls are decorated with verses of Hebrew poetry (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

After high school Shalev did a year of community service, volunteering at a shelter for girls. Some had been abused, some were fighting addiction, some had run away from home. Her job was to act as a big sister, “a positive and happy figure accompanying them for the year.”

Cpl Inbal Shalev in a Prison Four classroom (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Cpl Inbal Shalev in a Prison Four classroom (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

When her army service began, she knew she wanted to serve in a rehabilitative capacity – a job that receives far less attention than the IDF women out in the field with the face paint and the machine guns, but one that can be, for teenage conscripted soldiers, far more challenging.

She took the IDF’s teaching and instruction course and thought she would help conscripts with special needs. The only question the army asked her, though, upon completing the course, was whether she would like to stay at the army’s teaching academy or be placed in the field. When she opted for the latter, the army informed her that she had been posted to Prison Four.

She had never before worked with boys. “And I was scared that I would not be assertive enough. And I was thinking, who am I, that I would come from my nice little moshav and my comfortable bubble and come to these people who didn’t finish school, who can’t sit on a chair, who curse and use street language and all they have been thorough and forced to endure, who am I to teach them?”

Shalev wrote the words “Israeli” and “Jewish” on the board and circled each. “What is Israeli to you,” she asked the inmates. The answers: to honk in traffic when the light changes; to be a grafter; to cut in line; to always complain; to party; miserable soccer; and the anise-flavored spirit Arak.

Jewish, according to the inmates in the room, was to be smart; to be a believer; God; to be a businessman; to be rich; anti-Semitism; the Torah; and to have soul.

Shalev cheerily wrote all of the definitions on the board, leaving the army, the Western Wall, and the Star of David in the middle, as the inmates could not decide where those belonged.

Then, after reading them a famous newspaper column from Finance Minister Yair Lapid, which drew groans from all corners of the room and in which he wrote that he was “the last generation of the melting pot,” she asked everyone to stand up and move to one side of the room if they felt Israeli and to the other side if they did not. Only slightly more than half agreed that they felt Israeli. One stayed in the middle, saying he felt Israeli only when abroad.

After the class Shalev said, “There are many lessons I’ve done where inmates have said to me, ‘I hate the country. I don’t even want to be here. I don’t feel like I belong here. The only thing I’ve been fed by the country is bad things.”

“There was one lesson where I said, ‘We are not going anywhere until someone can come up with something good to say about the country,'” she said.

Eventually, with prodding, she recalled, they delivered the results.

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