Prison Service Building 'VIP Wing' for ex-PM Ehud Olmert

If his fall appeal fails, Olmert will be housed in the same wing as former security agents, mayors and police officers. The section will have more space and, most importantly, no turf wars.

Uriah Tadmor

The Israel Prison Service isn’t waiting for a court ruling on former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s appeal. Work will commence this week on converting a wing at Ma’asiyahu Prison in Ramle into a special section that will house Olmert, among others, if his six-year sentence for bribery is upheld.

The ward, due to open in three months, will be for prisoners who are deemed at risk and whose situation is particularly sensitive. It will be a small section, housing 20 inmates, with better conditions than in adjacent wings.

Olmert’s prospective new neighbors will include former members of the defense establishment; ex-mayors; and former judges or police officers who dealt with organized crime bosses. Once it is completed, the first resident is likely to be former police superintendent Eran Malka, a senior figure in the Ronel Fisher corruption and bribery affair, Malka recently received a prison sentence despite turning state’s witness.

Olmert has appealed the six-year sentence handed down for his role in the Holyland affair. He also faces a further eight months after being found guilty of fraud in the Talansky affair. Due to the summer court recess, it’s expected the Holyland ruling will only be given after the High Holidays, in October. If his appeal is denied, Olmert is expected to enter prison soon afterward.

The Prison Service and Public Security Ministry are aware of Olmert’s right to appeal, but preparations commenced straight after the Holyland verdict was announced last year. Since the prisoner will be a former prime minister holding many state secrets, the Prison Service established a special team (including members of the security services), to determine the level of protection required. The Shin Bet security service announced from the get-go it wouldn’t be providing protection, contrary to speculation, saying that prison officials already had experience in protecting sensitive prisoners. Nevertheless, all concerned agreed that extra preparations were necessary, particularly with regard to Olmert’s daily prison routine. As a result, prison guards in contact with him will have to undergo a special screening process.

When the Prison Service realized it would have to resolve the matter itself, a comprehensive plan was drawn up and the Public Security Ministry approved the building of the special wing, budgeted at 4 million shekels ($1.05 million). This decision was reached after all relevant agencies concurred that Olmert shouldn’t be kept in isolation or in a closed-off ward. A solution was required in which he could mingle with other prisoners, at minimum risk.

The decision to allow him to serve his sentence in an open ward, in the company of other inmates, led to the decision to build the “VIP wing,” in which inmates with similar security concerns could be concentrated.

The initial decision was that this should be a small area, with security clearance and screening particularly meticulous. Prison guards’ off-duty relations with their families, friends and colleagues will all be monitored. A special Prison Service panel – comprising intelligence and security agents, and social workers – will determine if a prisoner’s security needs justify admittance to the special wing. This decision will be based partly on the level of threat the prisoner faced prior to his entering prison; how long he has been out of the organization he was associated with; and when he last had access to classified information. The defense establishment assesses that, in most cases, anyone who has been out of the information loop for five years can still do some damage, but not of an immediate or irreversible nature.

It was also decided to build the wing in central Israel, with Ma’asiyahu Prison being deemed the most appropriate (Ramle is 22 kilometers east of Tel Aviv). It holds up to 1,300 prisoners: these inmates are either serving sentences up to seven years, or have seven years or less remaining on longer sentences that have previously been served elsewhere.

The Ramle prison contains three closed wards – in which prisoners remain in their cells all day, except for one hour – and nine open wings, where cells are locked only at night. These include a section for religious men, which is where former President Moshe Katsav is serving his seven-year sentence for rape. He will probably not be transferred to the new wing. The open wards include one for rehabilitation, another for sex offenders, one for older inmates, and a wing for people needing special supervision.

The section of the prison chosen to house the VIP wing has been occupied by 56 prisoners who perform different prison services, such as gardening, kitchen work and maintenance, as well as providing services for adjacent prisons. This is an older wing whose inmates will be transferred to other parts of the prison in coming days or to other prisons in the Ramle area. The section will then undergo renovations, which will reduce the number of rooms and significantly increase the space available to each inmate.

The current space allotted to each prisoner in the wing, including bed, is 3.2 square meters (34.4 square feet), while the new space will be 4.5 square meters. The wing will consist of two stories and eight rooms, with 2-3 beds per room – in contrast to other wings, where there are 5-6 beds per room. Each room will have a shower and toilet. There will be four public phones in the hallway for use by prisoners. The section will also have its own yard, where prisoners will be allowed to roam throughout the day. This yard is currently used by other prisoners, but will also be upgraded. The renovations will begin as soon as prisoners in the ward are transferred elsewhere, and is expected to be ready within three months.

The prison already holds inmates who used to hold sensitive security positions, and whose imprisonment requires their separation from other inmates. There are policemen who fought organized crime; ex-mayors who are under threat for trying to shut down businesses run by criminals; and a judge who sentenced criminals and other prisoners, and whose safety cannot be guaranteed by prison authorities under present conditions. In most cases, such prisoners are held in isolation or in closed wards, in order to protect them. Over the years, though, the prison authorities have viewed this as a less than ideal arrangement.

The decision to build the special wing was kept secret by the Public Security Ministry, mainly so as not to offend Olmert. But those involved thought it best not to wait for the result of his appeal and to start with the renovations, even at the risk of a news leak.

The VIP wing will bring one new pressure as well-off prisoners look to secure a place there – a problem given the relatively small number of spaces available. Most prisoners are expected to be white-collar criminals, which should reduce any turf wars – not a trivial matter in prison.

The Prison Service understands the new wing will be under close public scrutiny, and that any decision to house wealthy or well-connected prisoners who face no threat will expose the prison authority to severe criticism.