Israel Admits It Will Miss Court Deadline to Meet Standards for Prisoner Living Space

State prosecutors tell justices ongoing political deadlock is to blame, but a senior official says: 'For a whole year, no agency has done enough to change the situation'

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Ofer Prison, in the West Bank, January 22, 2019.
Ofer Prison, in the West Bank, January 22, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The state admitted on Sunday that it could not abide by a High Court of Justice ruling regarding the increase in living space allocated to prisoners in Israeli jails.

According to a document it submitted to the court, the state claims that by May 2020, the target date set by the court, no more than 40 percent of all prisoners will be living in the minimal space determined to be adequate by the Supreme Court justices, amounting to 4.5 square meters (48.5 square feet) per prisoner.

The state admitted that it does not know when it will be able to fully comply with the court order, arguing that this stems from the fact that an interim government has been in power for a long time. A senior law enforcement official told Haaretz that this fact is irrelevant.

According to this official, the bodies entrusted with implementing the court order did not do enough in this matter. Currently, 60 percent of prisoners, most of them Palestinian security prisoners and detainees, still live in less than the minimal space as determined by the court.

The official said that “there is no relevance to the fact that there is now a transitional government. For a whole year, no agency has done enough to change the situation. The police continued to send the Prison Service detainees who were released the next day. Incarceration conditions continue to be harsh, with the Treasury posing difficulties so that nothing has changed”, he said.

“The State of Israel has for the last year been in an unprecedented situation in terms of its governing body,” said state prosecutors to the High Court of Justice in a written statement.

“The government has been an interim one during this period and will continue in this capacity for several more months,” noted the prosecutors. “The Knesset was dissolved three times in a row, with three elections in a row. In stating this, we do not belittle the government’s deep commitment to completing the second stage of the planned change, only wishing to point to the connection between the situation under which the government is operating and the implementation of the court ruling.”

Last week, cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman held a meeting on this topic with representatives of the Public Security Ministry, the Treasury, the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service. Each ministry laid the blame for the situation on the others. Finance Ministry officials said that the interim Prison Service Commissioner, Asher Vaknin, was presenting false data in order to receive larger budgets for constructing or expanding prisons. Moreover, several participants at the meeting accused the police of making unnecessary arrests which contribute to the overcrowding.

In June 2017 the High Court of Justice ruled that conditions in Israeli prisons infringe on prisoners’ and detainees’ right to dignity. The court ruled that the state must provide each prisoner at least 3 square meters of living space by March 2018 and 4.5 square meters by the end of 2019. Last year, just before the target date for the first stage, the state requested that a new target date of 2027 be set. The High Court harshly criticized this request, saying that the court’s decision “was not a recommendation.” Despite this, the court permitted some delay in implementing its ruling. The state then completed the first step in April of this year, and was expected to complete the second step by May 2020.

The main measure used by the state in order to comply with the ruling was by passing a law allowing for early administrative release of prisoners. The new law led to the release of 1,289 prisoners, 923 of them in one day. The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee determined that the new law would apply only when the number of prisoners exceeded 14,000. Lately, the number dropped to this level and the state stopped the early releases. Prisoners who were expecting to be released will have to wait until the number of prisoners rises again beyond 14,000, upon which their early release will take effect.

In addition to early release, the state built new facilities and upgraded existing ones, as well as extending the length of the period for which judges can grant community service in lieu of prison time. Estimate are that between 1,000 and 1,500 prisoners will be released in order to comply with the court order.

In its earlier attempt to postpone implementation of this order, the state argued that the release of many prisoners would put public safety at immediate risk. Petitions by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the Academic Center for Law and Business in Ramat Gan and Physicians for Human Rights suggested that these were specious claims. According to Prison Service numbers, recidivism among prisoners benefiting from early administrative release last year was low, standing at 12 percent. In 2015, a Prison Service study showed that 18 percent or prisoners return to crime in the first year after their release.

The Association for Civil Rights said in response that “even though the court gave the state an extension of a year and a half in which to implement its ruling, the state now informs the court that it will not abide by it, without even proposing a timetable for its implementation. It’s particularly regrettable to see that despite the shameful overcrowding, the data shows that the number of criminal detainees has only grown, now standing at its highest level in five years. Instability in the political system cannot serve as justification for the continued holding of prisoners and detainees under inhuman conditions.”

The Prison Service said earlier that “the High Court decision regarding the space allotted to prisoners is anchored in a cabinet decision which also includes budgetary considerations. The Prison Service is working to implement the court ruling, as evidenced by the fact that by May 2020, 45 percent of prisoners will be living in compliance with the ruling. Building additional space is a longer-term matter. Finding alternatives to incarceration also depends on other agencies.”

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