Prison Suicide and Faith
The assumed suicide of Prisoner X inside an Israeli maximum security solitary confinement cell is presently sweeping headlines worldwide.
The location was Ayalon Prison in Ramla. Specifically, a highly monitored suicide-watch cell. One so unique, it previously housed assassinated Prime Minister Rabin's murderer, Yigal Amir.
Unverified details identifying Prisoner X are slowly leaking. He was Australian born, immigrated to Israel, and was recruited to serve as a Mossad hitman. His name was Ben Zigier. He married an Israeli woman, they had two children. A Kuwaiti paper reported he took part in assassinating a Hamas official in Dubai, three years back.
The more answers the media digs up, though, the more questions arise. What crime landed Zigier in an Israeli prison? Why did that government put a gag order against reporting his death? Why would he kill himself?
Until the dust settles on the factual questions, here's a more universal essential one.
Why do some inmates commit suicide? Conversely, why do most not?
During my thirteen years serving in Ayalon Prison, I lowered my share of dead inmates hanging from shower pipes. Their faces are deep blue. Depending on how long rigor mortis has had, the body is stiff and cold. It's distinctly unpleasant.
One fellow, moderate build, early twenties, constantly threatened to commit suicide. He did more than that. He tried twenty times.
To be more exact, however, dictates qualifying these almost two dozen self-inflicted attacks. Many probably fell into categories other than failed suicide. These deep razor wounds are also a very effective method of disrupting the prison routine. Call it revenge. But many inmates slit their forearms knowing that will demand the attention of the medical staff, guards, warden. Sirens, lockdown... For every such act, time and energy consuming internal reports must be filed. Enough inmates cutting themselves can bureaucratically shut down the system. Another motive for attacking oneself is, simply, to get attention. With overcrowded prisons, it's sometimes a last straw effort to be seen or heard.
This fellow finally forced the warden to place him in a suicide-free solitary confinement cell. That's not a simple thing. It demands constant dedicated monitoring, i.e. manpower. It also places additional legal responsibility on the prison.
"Why," I once asked this suicidal prisoner, "do you keep doing these things?"
Though relatively young, he'd been in and out (more in than out) of foster homes for troubled youth his entire life. Granted, he came from a large (thirteen kids) poverty-level family. He also got involved in crimes, ranging from petty theft to assault and break-ins, during his entire adolescence.
On the other hand, he was a reasonably good-looking guy. He did, albeit stained with a lot of dirt, have a potential life ahead of him during which he could do whatever he wanted. (His present sentence would "only" last nine years.)
"I have nothing to live for," he said.
"But, you're young," I replied. "You can study, maybe marry, try to build a life."
"Society will never let me back in," he replied.
"Your destiny is your choice," I countered.
"But," he concluded, "someone can only have a destiny, if they have a purpose."
That was one extreme personality type.
On the other hand, many inmates don't see incarceration as life-stopping. Quite to the contrary, they put a positive spin on their time behind bars. They see it as a quiet period, with reduced responsibilities and worries. A time when they can gather their wits and prepare for the future.
One fellow told me, "I'm happy I'm here."
"Why?" I asked him.
"This is the first time in my life," he replied, "that I can concentrate on myself."
That was true. He spent his entire waking day in the prison synagogue and classroom. In his early fifties, this guy got a three-year sentence on tax-related counts.
"My entire life," he said, "was spent making money, doing deals, hustling. This is my first opportunity to contemplate and restart my life, afterwards."
Even in the most painful circumstances, this difference of outlooks is prevalent. I even remember it from inmates being punished by solitary confinement: punishment within punishment.
Solitary confinement means being alone in a 2.5 by 3.5 yard cell with nothing more than a concrete bed jutting from a wall, a mattress, a sink. The "bathroom" is in the corner. That room is separated off from the entire building, in a quiet private cell block. All you have is yourself. Normally, solitary is dished out for short to medium bursts of a few weeks up.
I once saw an inmate come out of solitary looking one hundred percent better than when he entered. I visited him every few days, and he was always busy studying (he was completing high school studies, available through the prison education office). And he worked out three times a day.
I asked him, "You seem to be doing well, here. How do you do it?"
His answer was brilliant and insightful.
"Until I came in here," he explained. "I was distracted and rushed around by the hustle and bustle of prison life. When I learned I was being sent down, I decided to use this time to finish everything I always wanted before. I made an absolute decision. Not only would I not get broken, I'd come out infinitely stronger."
This fellow's attitude sums up the issues. Why do some inmates commit suicide? Why do others manage to keep moving forward, or even flourish?
The first answer is: Where there is no purpose, there is only futility. The second, is: where there is purpose, there is fortitude.
This applies to inmates, on the microcosm.
It also applies to us, no less, in everything we do.
Check your own attitude. If you ever get fleeting feelings of futility, you've got a problem of purpose. Refocus that, and get back into absolute fortitude.
American born and educated, Rabbi Major (ret.) Fishel Jacobs served as an officer, a Major, in the Israel Prison Service for over a decade. He is a well-known author and travels worldwide for speaking engaements and appearances.