‘A Gift From God’: Israel Releases 970 Prisoners Early

Prisoners are being paroled a few months early to relieve overcrowding, even if they have not completed rehabilitation programs

Prisoners getting released from prison in northern Israel, December 20, 2018.
Gil Eliyahu

Some of the prisoners in Wing 6 of the Ma’asiyahu Prison are counting the minutes until they are released early on Thursday. The atmosphere is thick with spices and the steam from the communal showers, and a feeling of chaos is in the air with prisoners going in and out of their cells in the evening, just before the regular inspection.

Starting Thursday morning, 114 prisoners will be released early from Ma’asiyahu after a change in the law two months ago. A few hours before their release, the excitement is at its peak. “There is not a single person here who is not sitting and calculating how much the administrative [changes] will reduce his [sentence], everyone here is going crazy,” said one of the prisoners behind the thin bars of the steel door separating us during the search of the cells. “I’m getting out tomorrow, it shortened it for me by four months, it’s a gift from God.”

The gates of 29 prisons will open on Thursday and 970 prisoners will be leave, months before their original release dates. The early release is an attempt to meet the orders of the High Court of Justice to provide minimal living space for all prisoners who were convicted of criminal and not security crimes and who are serving a sentence of no more than four years.

They will be released early, regardless of the crimes they have committed, the prison they are in, their sex or ethnic origin. The only exceptions apply to security prisoners.

The new law is good for A, sitting on one of the two bunk beds in Cell 13. He is only 22, but looks like a 14-year-old boy. A large black kippa rests on his head. His cell is very small, and he shares it with three other prisoners. All of them are large sized, and every inch of the cell is utilized for storage.

In the bed next to him is a fiftyish man covered with a comforter and who once in a while glances at A. “It’s like winning $5 million,” he says about the moment two days ago when he was told he was one of those who would be getting out early. “Actually, forget about it, it’s something that is impossible to value in money. It’s like being born again. It’s air.”

A was sentenced to six months in prison, a relatively short sentence, for possessing a handgun. “What was, was,” he says about the crime, refusing to say any more. He will be getting out after three months. He spent a year and eight months before that under house arrest. A hopes he can now leave his criminal past behind him. “The hardest thing here is the crowding. Look how we live,” he says. “No privacy. Without the barrier between the beds my feet would touch someone else’s head. The stool you’re sitting on is our dining table. I never thought it would be this way.”

This cell is relatively pleasant. In two other wings of the prison, life is shared by eight prisoners in a cell of 18 square meters: 2,25 square meters per prisoner – much less than the 3 square meters per person mandated by the High Court. The conditions in Israeli prisons are unfit for human life, ruled the justices.

Prisoners getting released from the Maasiyahu Prison, December 20, 2018.
Meged Gozani

No one in the Israel Prison Service is pleased about the mass early release program. It may make the overcrowding better, but a large number of those released are expected to return to prison through the revolving door of recidivism.

“The public should not be in a panic because these people were anyway going to be released in another two or three months,” said the warden of Ma’asiyahu, Nili Toledano. “If it was up to me, I would have first released the prisoners who completed all the processes of rehabilitation, but the law set release unrelated to the crime and so we prepared appropriately: The police were updated about prisoners who are dangerous, sex offenders were transferred to [the unit that supervises sex offenders], and crime victims were informed of the expected release. There is an effort to limit the existing risk as much as possible,” she added.

Toledano says she has despaired of the overcrowding in the prison. Parts of the building date back to the 1950s, and this is one of the better prisons. The Prisons Service has facilities dating back to the British Mandate era, and even earlier. “The release now has drastically reduced the overcrowding because the situation is very bad today, in particular in the summer,” said Toledano. “For me, as the commander, it is not good for eight prisoners to live in a room of 18 square meters because this friction causes violence, pressure. Now they will be five in a room, it changes the whole world.”

The Prison Service is not the only one preparing for the early release. The police are readying themselves for confrontations outside the prison walls between former prisoners at odds with one another. At the same time, everyone understands that the recidivism rate is high. One of the prisoners for whom this is the second time inside says: “You see the people here? Half of them will return, it’s a fact.”