Lawmakers Find 'Intolerable' Conditions in Surprise Visit to Israeli Prison

'The tension and the violence are growing,' says a former inmate, as incarceration conditions deteriorate under COVID-19 restrictions ■ Parliamentarians vow to take the case to Knesset committee

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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A shower in Ayalon Prison, Ramle, November 1, 2020.
A shower in Ayalon Prison, Ramle, November 1, 2020.Credit: MK Miki Haimovich
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Footage of Ayalon Prison in Ramle on Sunday revealed bedbug infestations, toilets that are just holes in the floor, mildew and water leaks on the walls, and plastic bottles for showerheads.

Kahol Lavan lawmaker Miki Haimovich documented the conditions during a surprise visit she made to the prison together with Moshe Arbel of Shas, where they spoke with prisoners who described the worst conditions they encountered while making their way from prison to the courts.

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“The transfer cells are actually a temporary holding cell for prisoners during the coronavirus crisis who come from the outside and have to be in isolation, as well as for prisoners who are being transported for hearings between prisons. The sight of those cells is not easy,” Haimovich said, adding that because the cells are temporary, they are in the worst state of all.

“Prisoners are supposed to have two coronavirus tests over two weeks, but in practice this is often delayed, which means that they stay in these cells for longer,” she continued. 

According to Haimovich, “the situation is even more horrible in the separation cells for prisoners who have committed disciplinary infractions. This is a means of punishment, but the cells are not fit for human habitation. Even in the regular cells, where prisoners spend years, the complaint of bedbugs is persistent.”

A prisoner showing bug bites on his hand in Ayalon Prison, Ramle, November 1, 2020.Credit: MK Miki Haimovich

“The grim scenes we saw on our surprise visit to the Ayalon Prison and in the transfer section are still burned into my memory,” said Arbel. He noted that the state comptroller had already demanded that the situation, which is currently “intolerable,” be addressed, but this has not happened yet. Arbel said that together he would tackle and resolve the situation with the chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee.

Yoni Yahav, a former prisoner who is now leading a fight against the Israel Prison Service, said: “Human rights are being trampled in the prisons today. The medical system, which is not supervised by the Health Ministry, is operating with no oversight at all.”

The cells are overcrowded, “terribly hot, there’s no air conditioning and there are bedbugs everywhere. And the Israel Prison Service continues to act with utter secrecy. People today don’t ask for 4.5 meters any more,” Yahav said, referring to the minimum living space per prisoner that the High Court of Justice has ruled to be adequate. “They’re asking for a few centimeters more. The tension and the violence are growing. You can only imagine what happens in a heat wave or a cold snap, when there are no family visits [due to coronavirus restrictions].”

The prison service has yet to implement the High Court’s instruction to provide 4.5 meters of space per prisoner, and at present, only half of the prison population has this amount of space.

Prison conditions combined with the restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus have brought tensions to new heights. Last week saw violent clashed between prisoners and guards at Eshel Prison near Be’er Sheva. The prison service has also restricted the sale of some items in the prison canteen, including certain shampoos and food products.

A bottle directing the water flow in a shower in Ayalon Prison, Ramle, November 1, 2020.Credit: MK Miki Haimovich

After a recent meeting to assess the situation, the prison service decided to ease conditions for prisoners who have not had furloughs or conjugal visits since March. The service apparently intends to allow furloughs, in keeping with coronavirus rules, although the actual decision to do so has not been made.

“It’s clear that prisoners have been in a pressure cooker for a long time,” a source in the prison service said. “A way has to be found to allow them to let off steam because both the conditions, and being cut off from the outside world as well as the fear of the coronavirus, could lead to a blow-up.”

The Israel Prison Service's official response described the complaints as "familiar" and pledged to "continue, by means of its internal resources, to constantly improve the prisoners' living conditions."

They also added that they are "certain that implementing the government decisions and transferring adequate budgets for building new prison facilities in Israel will constitute a change in the social perception, in the importance attributed to rehabilitating the prisoners, and in granting respectable opportunities for the prisoners upon their return to society when they have finished serving their sentence."

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