When Avraham Hoffman founded the Prison Rehabilitation Authority in 1984, 90 percent of prisoners in Israel found themselves back behind bars within a year of being released.
By the time he resigned as director-general of the authority in 2002, less than 60% of offenders were being sent back to jail, placing Israel well below the international average of 70-75%.
For this remarkable feat, and the groundbreaking methods he pioneered to give prisoners a ray of hope, Hoffman was awarded a prize by the International Corrections and Prisons Association last month in Prague - the same city he passed through when he was a month old and he and his mother were escaping the Nazis.
"Receiving the prize in Prague was very meaningful for me," Hoffman said last week. He recently returned from a lecture tour that took him around Europe to share his innovative ideas on rehabilitation.
The Prison Rehabilitation Authority was founded around the idea that "every person has the right to a new start," he explained, describing how a Knesset law provided government backing for the authority.
"Before the PRA existed, repeat offenders would stand before judges, and the judges asked of them, 'What should I do with you? This is your third time here.'
"The offender would reply, 'Your honor, what would you do in my position? I have no job, no basis in society.' The PRA was founded to remove this excuse," Hoffman said.
Moreover, until the authority was founded, the wives of prisoners were left helpless while their men did time. Only the underworld would offer to support the women financially, Hoffman said.
When the prisoners got out, their "buddies" would throw a party, welcome them back, and then demand a "payback" for looking after their families.
"The underworld figures did not want money from their newly released friends, but for them to get back into committing crimes. We came along to break the cycle of crime, by looking after the wives and children of the prisoners ourselves.
"When the prisoner gets out now, he doesn't owe anyone a thing," Hoffman said. Unlike other prison programs, the onus is on the prisoner to apply to join the Rehabilitation Authority. If approved by a prisons committee, the offender and the authority draw up a contract, under which the prisoner is released after serving two-thirds of his sentence.
The newly released offenders are then placed in urban hostels, kibbutzim and other places with the consent and support of the surrounding community.
"We need society's support, otherwise there is no rehabilitation," said Hoffman. The offender is then trained for a variety of jobs, and is obligated to show up for work. If the offender breaches the contract, he is sent back to jail.
"They are being taught to live. They don't know how to live simple lives, after being thrown out of schools and their homes at a young age. They have nothing to hold on to, so naturally they drifted towards crime," he said.
The feeling of "never being alone" is critical to the authority's success, he added."Being accessible 24 hours a day is everything in rehabilitation. All employees must commit to being available around the clock. What good are set office hours when a prisoner is threatening to jump off a high spot and needs to speak to you?" Hoffman asked. "We respect the prisoners, and we give them hope. Those who make it for two years without a relapse into drugs or crime become counselors for newly released prisoners. This is to prove that rehabilitation is possible," he said.[...]