Inmates at the Hermon Prison say they are constantly hungry due to the small quantities of food served at meals, while charging that the prison throws out huge quantities of food every day.
Located in the north of Israel, Hermon is one of Israel’s newest prisons. Conditions in the prison are generally considered better than those at other prisons, mainly because of its population – prisoners with less than five years to serve, prisoners in alcohol or drug rehabilitation programs and prisoners who have never been drug users.
Unlike in other Israeli prisons, where prisoners eat in their wards or cells, in Hermon all prisoners eat in the same dining room, split into three shifts.
But both current inmates and those recently released say the amount of food they get is so small that they are constantly hungry.
The amount “isn’t enough to sustain a prisoner during a day that begins at 6 A.M. and ends at 10 P.M.,” said Ohad Ganot, who was released from Hermon 10 months ago after serving a three-year sentence and was the only person interviewed for this article who agreed to be quoted by name.
Another prisoner, who is still at Hermon, said, “Twice over the last year I found myself sitting in my cell and simply crying because of the hunger. The inmates’ feelings of humiliation and helplessness ... over the issue of food are enormous.”
Breakfast at Hermon consists of one container of cottage cheese shared among four prisoners, part of a cucumber or tomato (either a quarter or a half), gruel made of water and flour, and a cup of tea. The only food item available in unlimited quantities is bread. This breakfast is supposed to sustain prisoners from 6 A.M. until 1 P.M.
Lunch includes meat, but in small portions: a piece of turkey breast half the size of a man’s palm or two hot dogs weighing up to 100 grams or three kebabs the size of falafel balls. That sort of thing. On Sundays, they get an eighth of a chicken. Lunch also includes a handful of rice, couscous or pasta, without sauce, a handful of cabbage salad (one of the few vegetables served in the prison,) a bowl of soup, often clear broth; a clementine and one glass of juice.
The dinner menu varies, but it usually includes a hard-boiled egg. The other items could be a small boureka and half a cucumber, a baked potato and a quarter of a cucumber or a pita with a small container of hummus along with some olives, pepper or cucumber.
“We used to joke that we should register a patent for the Hermon diet,” Ganot said. “We all lost 15 to 30 kilograms in jail. I lost 20 kilos.”
Moreover, he said, because bread is the only food available in unlimited quantities, prisoners stuff themselves with it. In contrast, healthier foods like fruit and vegetables are in short supply and are often poor quality.
Yet even as they go hungry, the prisoners say, large amounts of food are thrown away.
“The inmates who work in the kitchen say they throw out trays full of food – fruit and vegetables and meat – every day,” one said.
The wasted food comes from both prisoners and wardens, who eat much better than the inmates. They can choose from 12 kinds of salad, two or three kinds of meat and a variety of fruits, vegetables and juices.
“I don’t expect food like the wardens get,” one former inmate said. “But why throw it out? Why not give it to the prisoners who are asking for food?”
When he and his fellows inmates asked this question of the prison administration, he added, “They told us it would create a situation of inequality among the prisoners.”
On Shabbat, both inmates and wardens eat cholent, a traditional stew made with meat. But inmates say that when it is served, the meat is taken out and given to the wardens. The prisoners get only the vegetarian parts – mainly beans and potatoes.
Prisoners who have money can buy extra food from the prison canteen, but they have no way to heat up cooked food in their cells. Unlike in other prisons, there are no cooking facilities, and even hotplates are forbidden.
Moreover, not all inmates can afford to spend lavishly at the canteen. “The white-collar criminals have money,” one recently-released prisoner said. “But those without money, who can’t buy at the canteen, they’re the ones who go hungry for long periods.”
The result is that prisoners go to great lengths to obtain extra food. Some try to steal from the dining room, but that can result in severe punishment. Three weeks ago, for instance, a prisoner caught putting three hard-boiled eggs in his pocket was put in an isolation cell as punishment. The Israel Prison Service confirmed this incident, but said the prisoner in question could have afforded to buy food at the canteen.
Other prisoners try to steal from their fellows, mainly by raiding their refrigerators. And still others will do chores for wealthier prisoners in exchange for a can of tuna or some other type of food.
The Prison Service said that all meals at Hermon are based on charts drawn up by dieticians and other professionals. “We aren’t aware of any lack of food at Hermon Prison or in any other prison,” it said in a statement.
Moreover, it added, just a few months ago, the prison underwent both an internal inspection and one by an outside agency. Both paid particular attention to the issue of food, but “not a single complaint was raised,” the statement said.
The Prison Service said it was possible that Hermon’s unique eating arrangements, and the fact that prisoners lack the option of cooking in their cells, “create a feeling of scarcity among some.” Nevertheless, the service said that the matter would be investigated in response to this newspaper’s inquiry.