Israeli Prisons Significantly More Crowded Than in the West, Official Report Says

Prisoners get only 2.9 square meters of cell space per person, compared to 8.8 square meters in the West, according to the Public Defender's Office, leading to friction and limiting rehabilitation prospects.

Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel
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Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel

Israeli inmates are allotted roughly a third of the living space the average prisoner gets in the West, according to an annual report released by the Public Defender’s Office, which concluded that Israeli prisons are too crowded.

According to the report, Israeli prisoners get only 2.9 square meters of cell space per person, compared to 8.8 square meters in the West.

The Public Defender’s Office, which has been issuing reports on prison conditions each year since 2002, has continually warned about the overcrowding in prisons and detention facilities.

Israel Prison Service reports have also put living space per prisoner at about three square meters, a figure that hasn’t improved significantly since the 1990s. In newer prisons, a standard was set at 4.5 square meters per prisoner, which includes the toilet and shower area of the cell. By way of comparison, each prisoner in Finland is assigned 10 square meters of cell space; Spain allots 7.4 square meters, Holland, 12 square meters and England, 6.8 square meters.

The public defender’s report indicates that only 11% of prisoners have living space of more than 4.5 square meters; a quarter of the inmates are assigned a maximum of 2.9 square meters and more than half of the prisoners (59%) live in three square meters or less. Some 43 percent of the cells hold nine prisoners or more and 75 percent have more than four prisoners, though prison and detention regulations stipulate no more than four beds per cell.

The report lists shortcomings at 17 detention facilities, including the Nitzan Detention Center, where, according to the report, when a prisoner gets out of bed and stands up there is no room to move about in the cell. In the working prisoners wing a cell designated for six detainees is 12 square meters in size, i.e., two square meters per detainee. In Wing 12 of the Maasiyahu Prison there are cells 15 square meters in size that house 10 prisoners, so that the average space per prisoner is 1.5 square meters. In the Saharonim detention facility, which is intended for migrants who have not been charged with anything, the size of each cell is 21.45 square meters; every such cell houses up to 10 detainees, giving each only about 2.1 square meters of space. The Neveh Tirza women’s prison has cells 10 square meters in size, each housing six women, which amounts to 1.6 square meters per person.

Prisoners told the inspectors who researched the report that the overcrowding leads to friction between inmates and stymies their rehabilitation prospects.

“Overcrowding in detention facilities is first and foremost a social problem," the report says. “Crowding has serious effects on the prisoner’s physical and mental condition and his attitude to his environment; it undermines the prisoner’s rehabilitation prospects and increases the risk of recidivism after his release from prison. Thus, prison overcrowding is not just a personal problem for the prisoner, but a matter of public interest that should concern all of society.”

The defender's office suggests that legislation be passed to set standards for proper living space for prisoners and detainees, that would also apply to existing prisons, which would need to be renovated and their most crowded prison wings closed.

The worsening congestion, according to the report, is due to the sharp increase in the number of criminal (non-security) prisoners: Between 1996 and 2013 the number of such prisoners more than doubled, from 7,300 to 14,800. There was also an increase in the number of arrests, which resulted in crowded detention facilities. The defender’s office also lamented the overly lengthy parole hearings which significant delay the release of prisoners who are eventually found eligible for early release.

The Prison Service has said in response that it has “been careful over the years to improve the living conditions, making optimal use of the limited resources and developing alternatives to incarceration. As part of the multi-year program to improve living conditions, 1,100 spaces have been renovated or expanded over the past three years, increasing living space by an average of 1.3 square meters per prisoner. It’s important to emphasize that during the renovation process, we need to close wings, which immediately reduces the number of prison slots.

“Over the past decade a number of prisons have been built and expanded, and their living space averages five square meters. The IPS has also begun building a new prison for women in the south that will suit the needs and conditions required for holding female prisoners. The IPS sees improving living conditions as one of its important tasks and will continue to pursue it to the degree possible.”

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