Israeli Prison Inmates Seek to Sue State for Overcrowding

A number of inmates’ families told Haaretz that 20 prisoners recently sought 200,000 shekels apiece from the Prison Service for failure to meet minimal space requirements for inmates

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli prison guard keeps watch from a tower at Ayalon prison in Ramle near Tel Aviv February 13, 2013
REUTERS

Maasiyahu Prison inmates have accused the lockup's management of blocking their effort to sue the state for failing to comply with a High Court verdict last year that required the provision of three square meters of living space per prisoner by last March.

A number of inmates’ families told Haaretz that some 20 prisoners recently sought to file civil suits for 200,000 shekels apiece against the Prison Service for failure to meet minimal space requirements for inmates.

In addition to the minimum set for five months ago, the ruling also called for each inmate to have a minimum of 4.5 square meters of space by the end of the year. Inmates say there are up to eight prisoners cramped into single cells.

Rather than comply, the state asked the court in March to extend the deadline by a decade, which the court rejected out of hand. Afterwards the authorities presented an alternative plan to ease overcrowding by implementing early prisoner discharges and meet the minimal space requirement by April 2019.

>> Early Parole Bill to Ease Overcrowding in Prisons Advances, Hundreds to Win Early Release

The Prison Service has refused to file the inmates' lawsuit with Ramle Magistrate's Court against the overcrowding, relatives said. They said a division commander told some inmates that their move was a rebellion, and that if they wanted to file a suit they must do so by means of a lawyer.

Relatives of four inmates confirmed these details to Haaretz and said some 20 prisoners have asked to file individual suits.

“The conditions are unfit for human life,” an inmate’s relative said.

“Overcrowded, stifling, all the cells are infested with bugs and they all have scars from insect bites. A room with eight people in the August heat is insufferable,” she said.

“There was a lot of hope something would improve after the court verdict, but then nothing happened. The wardens told him the management was furious with him, but he has nothing to lose,” a relative of the inmate who initiated the law suits said.

“Maybe this will make them understand that the prisoners may have committed a crime, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated like animals. No one is rebelling, each one is acting on his own accord,” he said.

Last weekend, after wardens refused to file their suits with the court, a prisoner asked to hand the papers over to his mother when she came for a visit. But the wardens confiscated the documents and put him on disciplinary trial, fining him 100 shekels.

“We just want our voices to be heard, we want the court to make it clear to the state that there’s a price for hurting us,” one of the relatives cited a prisoner as saying.

“The right to court access is a constitutional basic right,” says Dr. Sigal Shahab, head of the Clinic for Criminal Law and Rights of the Accused at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, who was one of the petitioners to the High Court.

“Violating this right is serious in itself, but is much worse when we’re dealing with prisoners asking to file a civil suit for compensation for being kept in a living space smaller than three square meters a person.

The Prison Service has no legal authority to withhold or prevent such a suit, or to punish an inmate who wishes to submit such a suit. The Prison Service must revoke any sanction it imposed immediately,” Shahab said.

The Prison Service said in response that an inmate may file a suit via the prison management or a lawyer.

“In this case the inmate tried to pass on documents without a permit during a family visit, which is forbidden. The paperwork was taken for inspection and a suspicion of forgery was found – forgery of other prisoners’ signatures and using their identifying details without their permission. The case will be passed to the police and looked into.”

“The Prison Service has no interest or permission to prevent suits of one kind or another.”

The Service said that the same inmate had filed three petitions in an "orderly fashion" in the past month. Regarding the latest attempt to file a lawsuit it said the service was "acting on this matter in keeping with the attorney general’s instructions.”