Israel's Public Security Minister Freezes Plan to Replace Old, Inadequate Women's Prison

Gilad Erdan halts 2014 decision to fund new facility in place of Neveh Tirza, which houses some 200 inmates and has repeatedly been subject to criticism for its poor facilities.

The Neveh Tirza women’s prison in Ramle.
Limor Edrey

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has frozen plans to build a new women’s prison in Israel, Haaretz has learned. The new prison was meant to replace the old, heavily criticized Neveh Tirza Prison, the country’s only detention facility for female inmates.

Funding for construction on the new prison, which was to have replaced Neveh Tirza as early as this year, will now be put on hold.

Reports by the Public Defender’s Office and the Israel Bar Association have repeatedly called attention to serious defects at the Neveh Tirza facility. A 2015 report stated that most of the women being held in the prison’s solitary confinement wing had psychiatric conditions. One woman was held in solitary confinement so she wouldn’t infect the other women with lice and scabies.

In 2011, Haaretz quoted the former head of the Israel Prison Service, Aharon Franco, as saying Neveh Tirza was uninhabitable for inmates.

Neveh Tirza has room for 236 inmates, and for the last several years has held 200 prisoners (some 1.8 percent of all incarcerated prisoners in Israel).

Sixty percent of the inmates at Neveh Tirza are defined as suffering from personality disorders. Most of them are incarcerated following conviction for their first offense, usually domestic violence – murder of their child or their domestic partner.

The women’s prison has a number of wings: one for new prisoners; one for veteran prisoners who no longer use drugs or never used them; one for women undergoing drug rehabilitation; one for rehabilitation; and the solitary confinement wing.

In announcing construction of the new women’s prison in 2014, the Israel Prison Service said the facility would provide treatment for inmates and be designed to meet their special needs.

A steering committee was established comprising prison service staff and experts in welfare, rehabilitation and related fields. It was announced that the new prison, to be built near the Eshel Prison near Be’er Sheva, would be completed in 2016.

The prison service said the new facility would focus on the offender and not the offense, and would be a “therapeutic space” for inmates. The prison would have eight wings (built in a U-shape), two of which would house inmates who are new mothers – one for detainees awaiting trial, the other for prisoners after conviction. Each mother and baby would have a room. Each of the mothers’ wings would also have a public area with a common living room and play area to give a homelike atmosphere. No more than 40 women would be housed in each wing.

The previous public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovich, welcomed the project and earmarked funding for it – 150 million shekels ($39.3 million) a year for three years.

To show goodwill, the Israel Prison Service allocated 15 million shekels from its own budget to begin fencing in the compound where the prison was to be built.

But Aharonovich’s successor as public security minister, Erdan, has now decided to suspend funding on the project.

“We worked throughout these past few years on a funding plan that was approved – three allocations of 150 million shekels each to build the prison,” said Franco, the former prison service head. “Minister Erdan decided when he took up his post, for his own considerations and according to the ministry’s priorities, that Neveh Tirza would not be a priority and it was taken off the list for 2015 and 2016. I think this is a great pity, it’s a loss. A new prison has not been built [in Israel] for 10 years, when everywhere in the Third World they’re building advanced and proper prisons.”

Franco said that as he understood the situation, funding for the new prison would not be forthcoming in 2017, either.

According to the Israel Prison Service, they received a promise that funding would be provided for rehabilitation and wide-ranging education programs for prisoners, but that this should not come at the expense of the new women’s prison – especially considering the current woeful state of Neveh Tirza Prison.