In photo (left to right): Danny Tal (WSL17), Tal Winbrom (Staff) and Ori Ilan (WSL17). 

On May 10th, Wexner Israel Fellowship Alumni (WIF) and Wexner Senior Leaders (WSL) network/communities visited the Israel Prison Service which was made possible thanks to Talma Tohar-Cohen (WSL16), the Head of Planning and Budget Division of the Israel Prison Service.  We toured the Ayalon Prison and the Neve Tirtza prison, which is the only prison for woman in Israel.  While seeing these prisons, many of the academic ideas we learned during the WSL month-long program at Harvard’s Kennedy School became relevant.

The Israeli Prison System has 32 prisons located throughout the country with about 25,000 detainees, of whom some 6,000 are security detainees.  About 70% of the prisoners return to prison within a period of 10 years.  The Israel Prison Service offers rehabilitation programs for prisoners while serving sentences. 18,700 prisoners, more than 70%, participate in treatment groups.  More than 2,500 prisoners go to work in factories, and in the prisons, there are three factories  There are only 220 woman who are currently prisoners in all of Israel, whether convicted for a blue (harsh) or white (minor) felony, and therefore they are all imprisoned together at Neve Tirza.  

Prisoners are offered diverse programs that cover a variety of topics: anger management groups; interpersonal communication; coping with imprisonment; how to communicate with your children; occupational training just to name a few.

I came back from Wexner Senior Leaders’ one month executive program at Harvard’s Kennedy School in March.  Visiting these prisons called to mind so many theoretical ideas my WSL 17 cohort members and I were exposed to concerning leadership and authority:

  1. The Importance of Creating “Effective Public Value”.  These are measured in the Prison Service both at the formal level, vis-à-vis the Ministry of Public Security, and at the informal level, vis-à-vis the prisoners. The effectiveness of igniting public value in this place is reflected in all the services provided to the prisoner: professional training, workshops, matching visits and attempts to improve the living conditions of the prisoners, the renovation of old sections and the aspiration to build a new prison.
  2. Ricardo Hausmann’s “The Monkeys” Theory:  the transmission of information in complex systems can be challenging. The Israeli Prison Service has 32 detention facilities and more than 9,000 employees. Important news, policies and procedures are made public through an efficient information system to both employees and prisoners. Radio Focus, which is due to begin broadcasting in the coming months, will distribute information by prisoners for other prisoners. For example, a prisoner sitting on charges of fraud will talk about his way of reaching and touching the lives of other prisoners.
  3. Creative Collaborative Capacity: the interplay between formal leadership and the influence one can have through less formal leadership.  The prison commanders (Sarah, the Neve Tirtza commander and Arik, the Ayalon commander) combine toughness and flexibility and foster both dialogue and reverence.  Tim O’Brien at Harvard, who taught us the differences between authority and leadership and what connects them, came to mind  when we saw how well the prison commanders exercised their authority.  One of the principles of this theory is “Standing on the Balcony” which most Wexner alumni have studied and used in their careers as leaders. Indeed, the team that works with the prisoners stands on the balcony all the time — they look at the prisoners as human beings with potential for rehabilitation.  Outdated guidelines have been remarkably adapted, such as allowing visits from same-sex partners or allowing doulas to help birthing mothers.  Adapting to data on the ground, they have also started workshops for sex offenders who do not admit to being sex offendersRecently, they realized that there was an increase in the number of prisoners returning because of traffic violations, and thus began workshops in conjunction with the Green Light and the National Road Safety Authority to prevent recidivism for minor infractions.  

While the tour flooded me with a lot of feelings — some of them difficult, especially when visiting Neve Tirza, where we met a mother raising her child inside her prison cell — I was ultimately filled with a sense of pride.  Pride that we had a wide-ranging prison service whose leaders understood that today’s prisoners would be our neighbors tomorrow, and that it was their responsibility to do everything in their power to help these prisoners become constructive citizens. The sense of mission in  the women and men working in the Prisons Service was inspiring and also provided us visitors with deep lessons in leadership practice.  A special thank you to Talma Tohar-Cohen (WSL16) who organized a remarkable visit that opened our minds and eyes. 

Tal Winbrom is the Wexner Senior Leaders (WSL) program manager at the Wexner Foundation, Israel. In her current position, which she has held since the program’s launch in 2014, she plays an active role in the design, planning and implementation of the program, and manages the recruitment, selection and preparation process. Tal’s responsibilities include frequent interactions with the top echelons of Israel’s public service.  In her previous role with the Foundation, Tal was the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program manager for a period of 3 years. Prior to joining The Wexner Foundation, Tal worked as a cultural event planner for the Jerusalem municipality and prior to that she worked for JDC Israel (the JOINT).  Tal grew up in Jerusalem and graduated cum laude from the Open University with a B.A in History of the Jewish People. She holds a Master in Public Administration degree from the Federmann School of Public Policy and Government, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Outside working hours she volunteers in various social programs in her community.  Tal lives in Jerusalem with her 2 children.  You can email Tal at