Glad tidings recently reached Ma’asiyahu Prison’s cellblock 10, where former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the other convicts in the Holyland corruption case now reside. The Israel Prison Service has decided to let the inmates make a vegetable and spice garden. Out with the prison diet of canned tuna and tomato paste; now, inmates will be able to add pepper and coriander to their cooking pot.
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The permit to work the small plot of ground was received about two months after Olmert and the others from Holyland entered cellblock 10. And even before they arrived, the refurbished cellblock was starting to seem more like a rest home, with relatively few cells and only two or three prisoners in each.
But in the two months that have passed since Olmert learned that he’ll be spending most of his time for the foreseeable future with former businessman Danny Dankner and former Jerusalem city engineer Uri Sheetrit, the Prison Service has sent the cellblock’s eight inmates a clear message: You’re in prison in every respect; there are no celebrity discounts.
Olmert got the message quickly. Soon after he entered jail, his son Shaul came to visit, bearing a package of 300 films for his father and his cellblock mates to watch. But the Prison Service said, only 30 films. And on second thought, no feature films, only videotapes of family events. And not every such event, and not every tape.
In fact, Olmert was told, before he screens any wedding or bar mitzvah video, the footage must be viewed by a prison intelligence officer to ensure it contains no hidden messages. He and his family thought it was a joke.
“What kind of message could they send him, an escape map?” asked a family friend. “When the helicopter will be waiting to take him away?”
But in the end, Olmert decided to dispense with the videos, and with the bureaucracy entailed in watching them.
The renovations done before Olmert arrived including installing a small gym in the cellblock, with a treadmill and other exercise machines. This was less for the inmates’ convenience than as a security measure, to keep them separate from the rest of the prison.
But in contrast to other inmates, residents of cellblock 10 were unable to go to the gym for weeks. Why? Because an authorized trainer must be present whenever an inmate exercises, and it took the Prison Service time to hire one. Only recently did a trainer start coming twice a week for 40 minutes each time.
Moreover, rules for working out in prison are very strict. For instance, each prisoner is limited to 20 minutes on a treadmill, to prevent fights over who gets to use the machine.
Thus one day, Olmert arrived to use the treadmill and was ordered off after 20 minutes – even though no other inmates were in the gym waiting to use it. When he pointed out that the machine would simply be standing empty if he got off, he was told that rules are rules.
Olmert spends a lot of time writing. He’s started working on an autobiography, and to facilitate this effort, he asked the Prison Service for permission to have a laptop in his cell. But he was turned down flat; no inmate is allowed a laptop.
His relatives then offered to first give the laptop to prison intelligence officers so they could remove anything that would enable Olmert to connect to the Internet, turning the computer into nothing more than a word processer. They also proposed that anything he wrote be scanned by the intelligence officers and not leave the prison until Olmert is released. But the Prison Service refused. Olmert has to make do with pen and paper.
Nor do cellblock 10’s inmates get any breaks when it comes to visitors. Prison Service rules allow visitors only on Sundays and Fridays for a maximum of half an hour each. That’s because the average visitors’ hall can’t hold all the inmates’ relatives at once, so they have to visit in shifts throughout the day.
The visitors’ hall in cellblock 10, in contrast, actually can hold all the families of all eight inmates at once. But the Prison Service didn’t see that as justification for changing the rules. Visits are still limited to half an hour, so as not to discriminate against inmates of other cellblocks and thereby possibly cause unrest.
This concern isn’t unfounded. In the past, the preferential treatment given to “celebrity” inmates has generated more than a few unfavorable headlines. For instance, shortly before businessman Ofer Nimrodi entered jail, the Prison Service’s then-deputy commissioner paid him a personal visit to settle the terms of his imprisonment and what perks he would receive. In another case, the director of Ma’asiyahu Prison was ousted because of the perks he gave the celebs.
Thus today, even if there are occasional exceptions, the Prison Service generally doesn’t grant any special favors to famous inmates. When former President Moshe Katsav recently committed a disciplinary offense, for instance, he was punished like any other prisoner by being deprived of privileges.
This disciplinary infraction was one of the reasons for the parole board’s recent decision not to grant Katsav parole – a decision, incidentally, that has been much discussed by residents of cellblock 10. Katsav is also in Ma’asiyahu Prison, but in a special cellblock for religiously observant prisoners.
Meanwhile, as long as parole remains a distant dream, cellblock 10’s residents have found some unexpected occupations for themselves. One of Olmert’s neighbors in the cellblock is Meir Rabin, the wheeler-dealer who originally made the connection between the businessmen in the Holyland case and the officials they were convicted of bribing – including Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem. Rabin was convicted of taking bribes as well.
Since they entered prison, Rabin has managed to bring Olmert closer to religion. The former prime minister has begun putting on phylacteries every day and attending prayer services. He has also begun studying Torah.
Still, it seems Olmert is far from turning Orthodox and seeking transfer to the cellblock for observant prisoners.