The MSNBC prison documentary series Lockup is better known for slightly prurient grit from behind prison bars than for its take on intractable global conflicts.
But nothing that touches Israel can be without politics, and some viewers may be taken surprised by the glowing picture Lockup: World Tour: Israel paints of the scene behind bars in the Jewish State.
Violent crime and religious difference are “a potentially incendiary combination,” warns the narrator of the episode from Rimonim Prison, set to air for the first time this Saturday night. The show’s theme, however, is how Israeli prison officials avoid that conflagration with “relatively comfortable” prisons that “more resemble college dormitories than American prison cells.”
“When I came to this prison I felt like I was in a hotel,” an Arab man serving a life sentence for murder at Rimonim tells the camera, offering a tour of a cell whose furnishings include a television, radio, CD player, hot plate, and coffee machine. “We have everything. Nothing is lacking.”
A second prisoner, an Israeli Bedouin, shares a cellblock with 20 members of his family.
“You feel like we’re at home,” he says cheerfully. “Here we live together.”
“It was like being at the Sopranos’ house,” producer Kimberly Greenhut says of the visit to the cellblock of the men who appear to be imprisoned for a variety of gangland crimes. “It was a very festive environment, it was a very social environment – but then you know that these people are capable of murder.”
A third set of interviews focuses on a Jewish and Arab prisoner, Neil and Shadi, both serving life sentences for murder, who have developed an unlikely, buddy-movie-style bond.
“We eat togher we play together we work together,” says the Jewish prisoner. “I love him a lot – he’s better than a biological brother.”
“In prison we are disconnected from politics, we do not deal andconcern ourselves with politics,” he says.
“Given the situation outside between Palestinians and Israelis — the animosity, the conflict — I was actually really surprised” to see how well the two men get along, another producer tells the camera.
The show’s co-executive producer Jim Cirigliano, told BuzzFeed that — as the show mentions — Lockup was unable to film in the prisons that hold the Palestinian militants whose allies view them as political prisoners, and whose release is often subject to political negotiation.
“As we mention in the program, prisoners that Israel deems to be ‘state terrorists’ are segregated in high-security prisons that are closed to the media, though we are making progress in our talks with government officials regarding our future access,” he said. “In regards to Arab/Jewish relations, certainly fights and tensions occur between Arab and Jewish inmates, but according to virtually all the prison staff and inmates we spoke to, they do not stand out as an extraordinary problem.
“Generally speaking, there is just as much tension between fellow Arabs and fellow Jews. The decision to separate inmates is based less on ethnicity and more on issues regarding organized crime families, mental health problems and other discernible conflicts. We never set out to depict relationship as positive or negative. We simply report what we observe,” he said.