Israeli Minister Halts Plan to Expand Prison Cells, Cites Budget Constraints

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claims the Finance Ministry never transferred the 60 million shekels needed to expand living spaces for Israeli prisons

A prisoner walks through Rimonim Prison.
David Bachar

The plan to expand living space for prisoners in Israel has been put on ice at the order of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who said on Wednesday that the Finance Ministry never transferred the 60 million shekels needed for it. The Finance Ministry says it transferred all the money necessary under the relevant government resolution.

The High Court of Justice had ordered the government to expand the minimum cell area per prisoner to 3.5 square meters in March and 4.5 square meters by the end of 2018, in response to a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the College of Law and Business.

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The plan to expand cell space was being handled through legislation, which was supposed to come up before the Interior Affairs committee for voting on Thursday. If it had passed the committee hurdle, the bill would have been brought before the Knesset for voting into law during the summer break.  Erdan said Wednesday that he would not bring up the bill before the committee. Committee chairman Yoav Kish said the panel would discuss the matter anyway.

Separately, the state decided to increase the "administrative release period" for prisoners by a number of weeks, beyond getting a third off their sentence.

In order to comply with the court ruling, the state had said it would set up seven tent compounds for security prisoners at Ketziot Prison while renovating the existing facilities for criminal prisoners. However, the Interior Affairs Ministry claims it never got the 35 million shekels for that from the Finance Ministry.

While about it, the Interior Affairs Ministry says the Finance Ministry never handed over the 9 million shekels needed to extend the period in which incarceration can be replaced by community service from six to nine months.

Following Erdan's announcement, a prisoner in central Israel told Haaretz that it was a disgrace that the ministries are conducting budget wars on the prisoners' backs. The government was supposed to fulfil the court's order expanding their accommodation space in March, but it ignored the high court ruling, he said.

"We broke the law and we're in jail because that's what the court decided. But the court decided that the state should take care of us and the state doesn't care. I would like the Knesset members to spend one night under our conditions, packed together like sardines. The Safari zoo provides better conditions," the prisoner said.

The Finance Ministry commented that Government Resolution 3595 dated to February 25, 2018 made significant additions to the Prison Service budget, including a solution for renovating and building prisons, improving supervision over community service, improving the mechanism for early release on probation, and administrative release. All the budgets were transferred in compliance with the government's resolution."

The Finance Ministry added that administrative release doesn't actually require any budget, "so the relevance of the issue of budget to advancing the legislation is not clear. If the news report that the law was withdrawn is true, and the plan to implement the High Court ruling has halted, this is an irresponsible act that will lead the state to contempt of court. We hope that as the minister responsible for the matter, the Interior Affairs minister will do everything in his power to resolve the problem of crowding in prisons as the government resolved," the Finance Ministry stated.