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The Nir School: training the next generation of Israeli Prison staff.

The Hebrew word "nir" means "plowed field" or "cultivated field." The Nir School, the Israel Prison Service's (IPS) only school and training base, was founded more than 30 years ago. In the late 1990s, the school was transferred to Ramla, a city in central Israel with a population of about 65.000 and the home of five of Israel's correctional facilities. Israel houses 25,000 inmates in 32 facilities and has a staff of 8,000.

Col. Debby Sagi, at 51 and in her 23rd year with IPS, is the school's director and visionary. She describes the school as both a "preserver of knowledge" and a place that "creates knowledge." Not only does she see the school as a place for training new correctional officers on the practical aspects of their jobs, but she also sees it as a place where trainers can influence systemic procedures. "We must be those who express our opinions on various topics in the organization; we must serve as the organization's electronic sensors." she said. "At Nir, we are concerned with the IPS of the future, not the antiquated IPS."

Maj. Alona Zarjavsky, commander of the prison guards program, explained that Israel recently added inductees to the prison staff who are doing their compulsory military service at IPS. The inductees make up one-third of the trainees in the eight-week basic guard course. Zarjavsky said that during the course, which is made up of both theoretical and practical aspects, a suitability committee determines whether the trainees are suited to serve as correctional officers. "The school places particular emphasis on moral and ethical questions when trainees are being addressed on their suitability as prison guards," Zarjavsky said, "because these are the most important and significant issues."

Capt. Suzie Saadon, commander of the prison guards course, said that "Some prison guards have learned in the field, from experienced guards, certain behavior modes that should have vanished long ago." She and Sagi said that the screening process and the higher minimum standards that the IPS demands from new recruits bring in people who are of a higher caliber than in the past. The school trains young officers in the hopes that they will influence the veteran officers, as opposed to the other way around.

A Diversified Curriculum

In addition to training new correctional officers, Nir provides training for noncommissioned and commissioned officers and commanders at various levels of command. About one-sixth of IPS personnel spend a year at Nir enrolled in core courses, professional training and workshops. The facility includes 16 classrooms equipped with the latest technology. In the school's courtyard, a large compound comprised of different cellblocks is used to train students. The cellblocks are built to mimic a real prison, enabling students to practice security skills and familiarize themselves with both open and closed cellblocks and with what an exercise courtyard in a prison is like.

In addition, Nir has a specialist officer course for cellblock and shift commanders. The school also offers an administrative officer course and supplementary prison work training for recruits who are already officers in the Israel Defense Forces. Once or twice a year, the school offers a basic officer course for the training of education personnel.

Participants in the commander course are exposed to a day of inmate education, treatment and rehabilitation. Trainees, for example, are placed in treatment groups, such as Drug Addicts Anonymous, as if they themselves were prisoners. They sit in on a rehabilitation committee meeting to see the amount of time that is spent discussing the fate of a single prisoner, and they hear about such issues as whether a sex offender should be transferred to a rehabilitation program.

The longest running course at the school is the command and staff course. It is given once a year to 25 senior commanders who have been earmarked for promotion to the position of warden. The course is for correctional staff with the rank of Lieutenant colonel or major. According to Sagi, this is the only course where participants are given a comprehensive overview of how IPS as an organization operates within the context of the state of Israel. Participants learn how security and other agencies such as the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority and the Ministry of Education interface with IPS. In addition, commanders are exposed to issues involving work at the headquarters level, administrative questions and basic concepts in modem management.

All the workshops that were once conducted by external lecturers are now led by IPS personnel who are experts in the field. They introduce issues to the classroom taken directly from the prison environment. The school provides the facilities and infrastructures, while course content is set by the individual specialist departments.

Sagi describes Nir as a "laboratory" where students are allowed to make mistakes in order to learn how to do things differently. "A mistake at Nir is homework, not a gallows," she explained. Students are taught different work and leadership models, and issues concerning moral values and ethics are discussed and placed in practical terms. "Prison guards may learn how to handcuff a prisoner, how to break into a cell block; however, if, in their work, they do not follow a moral code and do not respect the prisoner's human dignity and if they see their prisoners simply as items that must be counted at roll calls, then our school has failed."


In 2008, IPS conducted an organizational diagnosis. Instructors at the school were asked about their sense of mission; about the extent to which they think they influence the trainees; and about the training organization as a whole. The results indicated that 94 percent of the personnel identify with the school's function. "We are talking about a sense of mission not just at the declarative level but also in practical terms," Zarjavsky explained. "We control the main switch and that fact is what drives us forward."

Personnel consider the work of the instructor a central factor in the process of molding correctional staff and in the development of the leadership of the future generation of commanders. "Our capacity for having an impact is huge," Saadon said. "The trainees attending courses at Nir are assigned to positions throughout the IPS. That is what increases our sense of responsibility and amplifies the meaning of our work."

Author's Note: Much of the information in this article comes from "Laboratory for Life," featured in the Israel Ministry of Public Security's Innovation Exchange. No. 14, published in 2008.

Gary Hill is president of CEGA Services Inc., and an international consultant in crime prevention, criminal justice and corrections.
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Title Annotation:International
Author:Hill, Gary
Publication:Corrections Compendium
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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