Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Prison Service: More and more inmates turning to religion

By Yuval Azoulay, Haaretz Correspondent
Haaretz - Ocxtober 12, 2005

Convicted murderer Ami Popper, who is serving a 40-year prison sentence for the murder of seven Arab workers in Rishon Letzion in May 1990, wears a white shirt and a kippah (yarmulke), and his face is framed by a beard. He lives in Wing 8 of the Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle, which is occupied entirely by religiously observant prisoners.

Over the past decade, Popper, 36, has "become strengthened," as the phrase goes - he entered prison as an utterly secular person, but under lock and key drew closer to religion. On Tuesday afternoon Popper refused to grant an interview, as usual, but was full of praise for the prison's rabbis who are accompanying him on his path.

Popper is not alone: Some 70 prisoners, many of whom have commited crimes such as rape, indecent assault and murder, occupy the religious wing at Ma'asiyahu. Two other such wings exist in the Ayalon prison in Ramle, and at the Dekel prison in Be'er Sheba. The Prisons Service notes a dramatic 50 percent rise in the number of prisoners who have returned to religion - two years ago some 250 prisoners attended religious study classes at the prisons, while the number has recently climbed to 550, and is expected to climb higher.

The Prisons Service cannot quite put a finger on the reasons behind the prisoners' spiritual awakening. Some officers say the prisoners are an accurate reflection of broader societal trends, while others say that once prisoners begin to pay their debt to society they become aware of the emptiness of their lives, and try to fill them with content.

Others speak of a "herd mentality" whereby prisoners who see their friends "enter the tents of Torah" also want to join in. Rabbi Moshe Toledano, chief rabbi of the Prisons Service, describes the trend as a "spiritual thirst" and says: "I myself find it hard to absorb how dramatically the numbers of religious and newly religious prisoners has risen."

The Prisons Service rejects the explanation that prisoners are attracted because of privileges received in the religious program, including being exempt from wearing the prison uniform. On the contrary, they point to the religious wings' strict codes of conduct: no television, no newspapers, early morning prayer, Sabbath observation, Torah study.

"The prisoners sign their agreement to these conditions, and those who violate them leave the wing," says Toledano. "There are others on the waiting list."

Over the past few days prisoners from Wing 8 at Ma'asiyauh have been erecting a huge Sukkah - the booth built outdoors during the Feast of Tabernacles - in the courtyard adjacent to the prison cells. Still lacking a green canopy and decorations, on this morning it is already full of prisoners studying Talmud and Halakha. S., a 19-year-old from Jerusalem serving a 10-month sentence for property crimes, says his father is a well-known rabbi from the capital, but that despite his family lineage, he "lost the path."

"I was reckless, a pleasure-monger," says S. "This is not my first prison sentence. All told, I have already spent close to three years in prison. Now I feel like I'm getting close to religion again. I've come to the conclusion that for every pleasure I sought I received a slap in the face. Something always happened that made me regret the fun I had. I realized there was no choice but to `become strengthened'."

As part of their return to the fold, prisoners often visit the graves of saints: prisoners from Negev jails go to prostrate themselves on the grave of the Baba Sali in Netivot, while prisoners in the center and the north go to the graves of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai on Mount Meron, or to Amuka, where it is customary for single men and women to ask the saint for a suitable match. In the past few weeks, the residents of the religious wings rise well before dawn for the traditional Selihot prayers. Though they remain groggy-eyed throughout the day, the prisoners don't complain.

Director of Ma'asiyahu Prison, Brigadier General Rami Ovadiah, says that some 50 percent of the prisoners in the religious wing were convicted for sexual crimes, incest or pedophilia. He believes that the religious wings have supreme reformative value: "In many cases new immigrants who had no exposure at all to religion hear the prayers over and over again and ask to join the activity," Ovadiah says. "They feel they can imbue their life with content. Suddenly a door is opened for them."

The Prisons Service statistics reveal that most prisoners who complete their sentences will return at some point because of involvement in other crimes, with the rate of recidivism at 65 percent. However, among religious prisoners recidivism is only 8.5 percent. The Prisons Service also report relative quiet in the religious wings, almost no incidents of violence and few disciplinary problems.

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