Vowing to Never Go Back, Ex-con Seeks to Improve ‘Intolerable’ Conditions in Israeli Jails

Yoni Yahav served five sentences behind bars. Since his release he has been battling to improve prison living condition and has organized demonstrations against a bill to prevent attorneys’ visits to jails

Josh Breiner
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Ex-convict Yoni Yahav attends a demonstration to improve prisoners' conditions in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 2020.
Ex-convict Yoni Yahav attends a demonstration to improve prisoners' conditions in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Josh Breiner

Yoni Yahav, 43, has been in prison five times. When he was released for the fifth time about two weeks ago, after nine months’ imprisonment, he swore that it would also be his last time. Despite his lengthy history behind bars, what broke him was actually a few months in Sharon prison. “Conditions there are intolerable,” he said. “It’s terribly overcrowded, eight in a cell. People were worried during the coronavirus.”

Yahav decided not to remain silent. Already in prison he started a Facebook page called “Protest of the Prisoners” describing the tough conditions in Israeli prisons. Since his release he has gone public, and demonstrates with families of prisoners against the overcrowded cells and the poor living conditions.

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“Prisoners are afraid to unite because it’s easy for the Israel Prison Service to separate them,” he says. “They’re in charge of everything – family visits, conjugal visits. … A prisoner knows that if he opposes the system he won’t be able to embrace his child. Prisoners have no lobby and no elected official wants to help them.” To date he has organized demonstrations in front of the Knesset and the home of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, against the proposed law to prevent attorneys’ visits to prison.

The prisoners’ stories led him to an “awakening” – years after he became debt-ridden and entered the world of crime. He describes his time in crime organizations, when he was involved in fraud, money laundering and extortion, as “a horrible life.” “It’s a life of greed and wars of survival. You’re always looking who has a more expensive car, who lives on a higher floor – but it’s also living all day looking behind your shoulder, sideways, checking the bottom of your car and your wife’s car. It means switching cars and being afraid of the police.”

He adds that prison doesn’t do its job of rehabilitation – just the opposite. “You enter prison and leave twice as much a criminal, because you connect to people there, and if you take sides, immediately you’re the enemy of the other camp and you’re marked.” He says, “The IPS isn’t interested in people, or in prisoner rehabilitation, because fewer prisoners means less money. For them we’re a money factory, we’re returning clients, and they make sure to maintain us.”

Instead of the therapy he didn’t receive, he’s trying now to help prisoners who were left behind. “I realized that I can take care of myself only if I help others, those who ate from the same plate as me.” He recruited lawyers and prisoner activists, and last week they demonstrated in front of the Knesset during an Internal Affairs Committee meeting about prison living conditions.

They are planning additional demonstrations against the IPS commissioner and legal adviser, and meanwhile Yahav wants one other thing: “For the public to know what happens in prison. How the fleas take over the cells, mice, inferior conditions. Aren’t people in prison human beings? So they’ll say I’m a criminal, but this criminal is now speaking for the others who can’t speak, and he won’t rest until the criminals with rank obey the [Basic] Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, just as I paid my debt to society when I broke the law and went to prison. I won’t let them get away with it.”

The system may be able to easily dismiss Yahav’s complaints because of his serious crimes, and the IPS believes that all he wants is revenge. But he’s right: Already in 2017 the High Court of Justice decided that the government must provide every prisoner with living space of at least 4.5 square meters, but although this was supposed to happen by May 2020, the IPS claimed that the space is available to only 40 percent of prisoners. In Europe the average is 8 square meters. In the end the court postponed implementation to an unknown date.

Previously, in an attempt to carry out the ruling, the government took several steps: First, building a state-of-the-art prison in Megiddo with 2,000 places, in a project including tourism initiatives. The second important step was moving releases through “expanded administrative release,” in which prisoners are sometimes released even six months early, regardless of their crimes or whether they’re still considered dangerous.

Former Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan decided that expanded administrative release should apply as long as there are over 14,000 prisoners. But the coronavirus reduced the number of arrests to 70 percent of their number in the same period last year, leaving the lowest number of prisoners in Israel in the past 20 years. The number is now 13,800 (compared to 18,000 in 2010). So the early releases were halted and construction of the new prison was frozen.

The Finance Ministry said that due to the low number of inmates there is no longer a need for a new, spacious prison, adding that the IPS can observe the court rulings without it. The law enforcement system claimed that the number of prisoners who receive the required space is greater than the IPS claims.

The decline in the number of prisoners is now resulting in complaints about the inflated manpower in the IPS, with the treasury demanding that the agency – most of whose budget is invested in salaries and pensions – streamline its operations. But that won’t improve the poor conditions of the prisoners: The prisons are obsolete, there are fleas everywhere and crowded conditions are still prevalent.

The small number of prisoners is a problem for the IPS: On one hand, the fewer the prisoners, the lower the budgets. That means that no new prisons will be built and there will be less manpower. On the other hand, a decline in the number of prisoners would increase the living space per prisoner. Ohana now has to decide whether to restore the early releases by lowering the maximum number to 13,000, which would mean fewer prisoners and less money.

“It’s a cynical battle between the treasury and the IPS,” says Avi Himi, chairman of the Israel Bar Association. He said the expanded administrative releases should be instituted immediately, because of the poor prison conditions.

Acting IPS Commissioner Asher Vaknin said the numbers will increase to 17,000, and even if there are 1,000 vacant places designated for Palestinian security prisoners, he can’t put regular criminals there. He insisted that only the IPS can plan prison arrangements. However, the enforcement authorities says that “the IPS wants as many prisoners as possible, but we have dropped to 13,000 prisoners, and the crime situation hasn’t worsened.”

The IPS stated: “The IPS is responsible only for the supply of places in prison, and not for populating them. The IPS takes care of prisoner welfare and security and is constantly trying to improve the treatment and rehabilitation of criminal prisoners, prevent recidivism and help prisoners return to the community. In the past two years millions of shekels were invested in improving living conditions and increasing living space. The first stage of the High Court decision has been completed and we are beginning the second stage.”

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