Severe Overcrowding as Israel's Prison Population Hits 15,000

In order to meet the High Court requirement by the end of 2022, there should be 13,600 inmates in prisons service facilities, however, the number has jumped from about 14,000 prisoners in February to almost 15,000 in May

Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit
A prisoner in Maasiyahu prison, in Ramle, in 2018.
A prisoner in Maasiyahu prison, in Ramle, in 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod
Chen Maanit
Chen Maanit

The number of detainees and prisoners in Israeli detention facilities rose by almost 900 between February and May, to approximately 15,000. The spike is mainly due to increased arrests for weapons offenses in the Arab community as well as a decline in early releases after the Knesset stiffened conditions for such release. The addition to the prison population will place the state even further from compliance with a 2017 High Court ruling, which called on the state to meet the goal of providing minimum living space for prisoners by the end of the year.

In order to meet the High Court requirement by the end of 2022, there should be 13,600 inmates in prisons service facilities. However, the number has jumped from about 14,000 prisoners in February to almost 15,000 in May, according to figures provided by the Israel Prisons Service to the NGO Hatzlacha and obtained by Haaretz.

According to Prof. Oren Gazal-Ayal, an expert in criminal law, the rise in the number of prisons stems from two main reasons. The first: “Since February arrests have gone up because of the waves of arrests in the Arab community mainly on weapons charges.” Gazal-Ayal says that 40 percent of the prison population consists of detainees who have not yet been convicted – up from 30 percent four years ago.

Another reason for the increase are new restrictions governing the release of prisoners before the end of their term. “The restriction stems mainly from the fact that the Knesset this year banned the early release of prisoners convicted of serious violence, domestic violence and sex offenses,” said Gazal-Ayal.

In its ruling, the High Court sharply criticized the conditions for prisoners in Israel, after it was revealed that the living space in most of Israel’s prisons is smaller than that of jails in developing countries.

The court determined that prisoners must have no less than four square meters of space in their cell, not including toilets and showers, or 4.5 square meters in cells with toilets and showers. The increased space was to be made available in two steps, the second of which was to be completed by December 31, 2022.

That date is fast approaching, as compliance with the ruling seems to be receding. According to the information obtained by Haaretz, on February 22, the prison population was 14,084, and last week, as of May 10, it had grown to 14,961. That is, an increase of 877 in just a few months. It should be noted that the number of prisoners changes daily. The significance of the figure is that there are about 1,300 more prisoners today than there should be by the end of the year.

The Israel Prisons Service responded that it is “doing all it can to contribute to the struggle against crime and maintaining security for the residents of Israel. Naturally, the large number of arrests ends up at the door of the Israel Prisons Service, which must provide a response in its facilities. It is difficult to anticipate the number of prisoners and detainees who will be absorbed by the service. But we are investing major efforts in complying with the High Court ruling…Statistically, based on the figures of last weekend, the Israel Prisons Service is expected to reach the goal of 4.5 square meters per prisoner in about 70 percent of its facilities – by the end of 2023.”

The prisons service also stated that it was “working with the Israel Police, the prosecution and the courts to increase the numbers of prisoners serving alternatives to incarceration, along with other solutions the Public Security Ministry is advancing.”

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