External Oversight of Israeli Prisons, Detention Centers Could Be Axed

Reports by external oversight bodies have pointed to violations of basic human rights in detention facilities.

An inmate in Ayalon Prison.
Daniel Tchetchik

The Israel Prison Service is looking to have outside oversight of its facilities stopped, but the external bodies that conduct annual reports on its jails are fighting the move.

The prison service recently asked Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to stop the current oversight mechanism. Both the prison service and ministry have noted their desire to expand internal governance instead.

For many years, three external bodies have conducted inspections of Israel’s prisons and detention centers: the State Prosecutor’s Office; Public Defender’s Office; and Israel Bar Association. These bodies publish annual reports on conditions at the facilities and the protection of prisoners’ rights.

These reports began in 1999, with the Public Defender’s Office publishing its report since 2002. The Justice Ministry also sends its own officials to appraise the prisons and reports to the attorney general on breaches of basic human rights at the facilities.

Each year, the public security minister approves the names of the members of the Israel Bar Association’s oversight committee.

The Public Defender’s Office was one of the first bodies to warn of prison overcrowding, noting in an annual report that a quarter of prisoners live in a maximum space of 2.9 square meters (31 square feet), while nearly three-fifths live in 3 square meters or less.

The same office also reported that many prisoners are kept in solitary confinement because of psychiatric problems, and that most of the prisoners being held in solitary confinement in the country’s only women’s prison are there because of psychiatric problems.

External oversight has also shown that a disproportionate number of prisoners, including minors and the disabled, are cuffed to their bed because of disciplinary infractions.

Cells have also been found without windows, cockroach-infested or with excrement smeared on walls and floors.

Some of the external bodies’ reports have been submitted to Israel Prison Service Commissioner Ofra Klinger, who has told justice and public security ministry officials privately that the number of external overseers visiting prison facilities should be reduced. Instead, Klinger would like to see internal oversight by medical personnel, social workers and other officials. However, some insiders say Klinger is still angered by the external bodies’ reports, which she considers too harsh and are released to the media in a prejudicial manner.

The prison service does have its own oversight department, but it doesn’t extend such oversight to senior officers and is yet to publish reports that are transparent enough to show a serious approach when it comes to self-criticism.

According to Justice Ministry sources, some of its senior officials support outside oversight and don’t intend to agree with the prison service and Public Security Ministry demand to curtail outside entities’ activities.

Justice Ministry officials say they have no objection to the prison service conducting its own inspections, as long as they don’t interfere with outside inspections.

Outside inspection reports have sometimes sparked harsh reactions from the prison service. In one instance, it refused to accept the credentials of two members of the Israel Bar Association oversight committee because of a report they had filed on conditions at Ma’asiyahu Prison. In the report, published in August 2014 by attorneys Menahem Rubinstein and Erez Abuhav, suspicions were raised that prison officials were recording conversations between prisoners and their lawyers, with the legal association demanding that an independent panel be appointed to investigate.

The prison service denied the allegations and the service’s head of internal oversight, Col. Aliza Yaakobi, informed the Bar Association that the report was “cheeky and disparaging, and contained serious unsubstantiated accusations and arrogant ‘suggestions for improvement.’”

The prison service said it had revoked the two attorneys’ credentials as official visitors because of a conflict of interests, noting that Rubinstein had met with a client during visits to Neveh Tirza and Ma’asiyahu prisons.

The Justice Ministry told Haaretz that the issue of outside oversight had been brought before the attorney general and was being reviewed by the justice and public security ministries.

The Public Defender’s Office said it was one of the main external bodies, “conducting thorough, deep and balanced oversight in prisons with the goal of maintaining the rights of prisoners and detainees in Israel. [Our] reports over the years have led to the correction of many defects, both local and system-wide.”

The PDO added that it submits all of its reports to the prison service for comment before they are released, and that “many senior officials in the Israel Prison Service, including its commissioners over the years, have recognized the professionalism of the reports and changes that were made as a result. We believe it is very important to maintain the existing situation.”

The prison service did not respond to this report.