Israel's Prison Service, Told to Give Inmates More Room, Suggests Tent Cities and Waiting Lists

Some 3,200 prisoners are currently living under conditions that don't meet the requirements laid down months ago; 40 percent of them are Palestinian security prisoners

An inmate at the Rimonim Prison in Israel.
\ Moti Milrod

Senior officials of the Prison Service are said to be warning that the implementation of a court decision to expand the living space of prisoners will seriously harm prisoners and the Prison Service.

The courts called for granting each prisoner three square meters of living space. The High Court of Justice demanded that the state submit a plan and a schedule for its implementation by Passover. The Prison Service intends to present several solutions, including the erection of a tent city for security prisoners, as well as deploying concrete blocks used for housing in Eshel Prison in Beersheba. A further solution is the preparation of a waiting list for entering prison after sentencing. The attorney general was expected to hold a meeting on Thursday to formulate a plan to be presented to the High Court.

Prison service officials say that implementing the plan will critically hamper their ability to help rehabilitate prisoners. “Only if the police, state attorneys, the courts and anyone authorized to grant pardons collaborate will we be able to reduce the number of prisoners. If it falls only on the Prison Service, we and the prisoners will be harmed.” They added that investing in expanding prisoners’ living space will mean that no new, modern prisons will be built. “In order to provide three square meters, other plans for improving prisoners’ conditions will be affected,” they maintained.

Currently, 3,200 prisoners are living under conditions that do not meet the requirements laid down last June. Forty percent of them are Palestinian security prisoners. One proposal seems to be that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners now held in security prisons be transferred to tent cities in Ketziot Prison, under open skies. “This is going back 40 years as far as the Prison Service is concerned, but we have no choice,” said senior officials. “Some prisoners prefer this option, although there are some risks involved since it’s easier to smuggle in prohibited items under those conditions.”

Another idea is for people sentenced to prison to be put on a waiting list that will be given to the courts. In some cases convicted people will wait a year before starting to serve their sentences.

In a meeting held this week at the High Court of Justice, the judges offered several propositions in an attempt to ease the overcrowding. Justice Hanan Melcer suggested using mobile homes, as done previously in 2005. He also suggested using the recently closed Holot detention center for short sentences. Justice Uri Shoham suggested granting large-scale pardons ahead of Israel’s 70th Independence Day.

A prisoner serving a lengthy sentence said this week that prisoners are putting their trust in the courts. “People here are in despair, we’re badly treated anyway, so the courts give us some hope.” Another prisoner petitioned the High Court to release him immediately due to the overcrowding which contradicts the judges’ ruling. “I don’t wish such overcrowding on my enemies,” he wrote. “It’s unbearable in the summer heat.” His petition is under review and the Prison Service believes many more similar petitions will follow.