An innovative program is taking prisoners out of the jail cells and into responsible roles as caretakers for the severely disabled.

ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran is a residential community for those with disabilities. Three days a week, the community is also visited by a group of prisoners who serve as hands-on, longterm volunteers.

ALEH-Negev CEO Masada Sekely said the program not only provides much needed support for the disabled residents, but also gives the prisoners a chance to give back to the community and begin to think of themselves as something other than someone who has done something bad.

“If you ask the prisoners what the volunteering means to them, they always say two things” Sekely said. ” First, ‘Before I came to this village I was never interested in volunteering.’ Second, ‘I’m in jail because I stole or did something else bad. Here I feel the residents are in a kind of jail because their body is so limited, and they stay in this jail all their life despite having done nothing wrong. I see now that I’m responsible for my life and I can make it better because I’m not helpless.’”

Still, it took some convincing before Sekely agreed that having non-violent prisoners at the facility.

Yet, after seeing the men interact with the residents, Sekely and the ALEH-Negev team now see the program improves the lives of both prisoners the residents alike.

“We have a resident suffering also from elephantiasis — his face is like a mask, and it’s hard to look at him if you’re not used to him,” Sekely said. “One of the prisoners chose him and walks with him.”

Looking beyond his disability Sekely said that the prisoner volunteer has taken the time to focus on the person, not the face.

” When he has to leave, he hugs him,” Sekely said. “That touch is so important. He is treating him as a human being, not a monster.”

She added that it is not uncommon for the prisoners to make this special connection. “I feel the prisoners prefer to choose the more challenged residents, those with the worst abnormalities.” the ALEH- Negev director said.