With Israeli Prisons Full, Detainees Are Sleeping on Police Station Floors

The Prison Service and the police blame each for a national overcrowding crisis that has forced the police to take on a new, unwanted role: Jailer

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Illustration: Megiddo Prison.
Illustration: Megiddo Prison.Credit: Itzik Ben Malki
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

When a 40-year-old man from Ofakim was arrested last week on suspicion of breaking into homes, he was held in a squad car at the local police station for hours. The man’s lawyer says his client waited an entire day, without food or drink, until he was brought before a judge for a detention hearing. The police station’s lockup is undergoing renovations and the Israel Prison Service doesn’t have temporary detention facilities. As a result, the police are often forced to hold detainees at police stations.

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The Ofakim man’s case is far from exceptional. He is just one of many people who have been forced to stay at police stations that are not equipped to hold them, in inappropriate conditions. The Public Security Ministry calls it a crisis. In July, hundreds of people who were arrested by police could not be sent to Israel Prison Service detention centers, which are already holding about 1,000 more people than permitted by law.

A man in the Yarkon District of the Israel Police who was arrested recently for burglary said he wasn’t given a bed for 24 hours, and slept on the floor of the police station. He begged the court to place him in the Abu Kabir lockup, in southern Tel Aviv. “The conditions are unacceptable,” said Judge Chen Meirovitch of the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court.

In another instance, a 20-year-old man from a Bedouin community in the Negev who was arrested last week for possession of marijuana plants, said he was put in a small cell together with four other detainees and forced to sleep on the floor, without a mattress or a blanket.

In many cases, the poor conditions in police detention are only discovered when detainees are brought before a court. A 63-year-old Tel Aviv man who was arrested last week after throwing a rock at his partner, was put in a holding cell at the Lev Tel Aviv police station. “I don’t know what happens with the detainees,” a police representative said at his detention hearing.

At another detention hearing, for a man who was person placed in a holding cell at the Yarkon District station, a police representative said: “I don’t know where he slept. There is a well-known shortage of beds at Israel Prison Service facilities and there probably was no bed to give him,” adding, “I don’t care where he slept.”

At the Moriah police station in Jerusalem, detainees were left to sleep on a concrete floor. The practice has been repeated frequently in the capital city in recent weeks; there have been at least 10 cases of detainees being forced to sleep on the floors of a police station, without even a mattress. Magistrate’s court judges are constantly criticizing conditions.

The Neveh Tirza women’s prison in Ramle. Credit: Limor Edrey

In another case, a 44-year-old Bnei Brak man was brought to the local police station on suspicion of assaulting his wife. He claims that he was cuffed to a chair by his arms and legs for a whole day because there was nowhere to put him in Israel Prison Service facilities. The previous night he slept on a mattress in a police cell, his hands and feet in restraints.

These are not sporadic incidents, but the result of police policy. According to a senior law enforcement official, who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity, this is a national crisis. “There is no room in the detention centers, and it is the general public that is harmed the most because patrol officers are the ones who have to guard the detainees at night and then there is no one out on the streets. The police are forced to act as jailers, and the detainees are held in inappropriate conditions without medical care and without mattresses. This is not the country we want to be,” the official said.

During one week this year, nearly 600 detainees were being held overnight at police stations around the country. Israel Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry last week admitted to the committee examining the Gilboa Prison break that “we are in a jailing crisis. Every night, dozens of detainees remain overnight at police stations. This is not good for the police or for Israel’s citizens.”

The Israel Prison Service and the Israel Police trade blame for the situation. Senior police officials blame the prison agency for refusing to “open the gates” to criminal detainees, especially at night, which forces the police to hold them at their stations. But there’s no room in the prison service’s detention centers, which are supposed to house detainees: Occupancy already exceeds 100 percent. According to a senior prison service official, “The police are aware of the problem, but they just don’t care.” He said the police arrest people and then blame the prison service. “From their perspective the only solution is to build two more jails,” he said.

With the police refusing to arrest fewer people or to release them in order to prevent them from being brought before a court, the Israel Prison Service doesn’t know what to do as prisoners are being kept in conditions with personal space below that which the High Court of Justice has said is the minimum permissible. The public security minister issued a directive according to which no more than 14,100 prisoners or detainees should be held at any one time in all prison service facilities. In fact, the number of detainees stands at 14,970, a record high over the past year.

A prisoner walks through Rimonim Prison.Credit: David Bachar

In comparison, in December, 14,000 prisoners were held in IPS facilities. That same month, the Knesset amended the law on early release of prisoners to ease crowding due to criticism of the fact that some prisoners gaining early release were sex offenders and violent offenders. This led to the number of prisoners in Israeli jails increasing to 300 above the maximum, however, the most significant increase resulted from an increase in police detentions as a result of operations to catch illegal Palestinian workers following the wave of terror in March and a crackdown on violent crime in Arab communities.

Haaretz has learned that in several detention facilities crowding left detainees with less than 3 square meters of space each: The High Court has ruled that each detainee should have at least 4.5 square meters. According to a senior source, the crowding has been authorized by Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara. “We cannot take in more people and the only solution is to increase the number of facilities and to upgrade police detention centers,” says a senior prison service officer, “but at the same time the police need to be more efficient.”

'We can't stop arresting people'

Sources in the Israel Police, speaking on condition of anonymity, reject the IPS claims and say they are working under public demands for a tough approach to crime. “A husband threatens to kill his wife and we don’t have anywhere to hold him. So what do we do? Should we let him go because we don’t have room,” said a senior police officer. “The police do not have any expertise in detention,” he added. The role of the police is to fight crime. But the job of detention is not ours. … We can’t stop arresting people and we can’t abandon the public, but the IPS is closing its doors and that is impossible.”

In the meantime, planned extra detentions wings in prisons will only be ready at the end of the year at the earliest. As part of an attempt to find a solution to the problem, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai suggested upgrading police station detention cells for use as short-term detention centers, but this on condition that they will be operated by the IPS. There are currently some 300 potential police detention facilities but making them usable for this purpose and training personnel will take time.

Israeli Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, last month.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

A hearing was held recently on the issue at the justice ministry with the participation of representatives of the Attorney General’s Office. Chief Public Defender Anat Meyassed Cnaan wrote in a letter to the attorney general: “The current picture received from court hearings and from reports from public defenders throughout the country is one of the detainees being held in inappropriate conditions in holding cells and police stations that are not designed for holding detainees for long hours and certainly not overnight or longer.”

A police spokesman said in response that the Israel Prison Service is responsible for detainees. “Unfortunately, recently there has been a severe shortage of detention places throughout the country. The police are forced to hold detainees in holding cells for several hours or overnight until they’re brought before a court for remand.”

The spokesman added that the police force is “doing all it can to reduce the scale of the problem and expects all those involved to find further solutions to enable the detention of detainees in possible in appropriate conditions.”

A spokesman for the IPS said: “The jailing crisis is the result of the war on crime, including in the Arab sector, and the fight against terrorism which has led to an increase in the number of detainees, a reduction in the number of administrative releases, a reduction in the number of detainees according to the “living space” provisions of the High Court. In recent months the number of detainees held by the IPS has exceeded the maximum by 1,000.

The spokesman added that the construction of detention facilities at several prisons has been speeded up in order to be able to hold detainees in appropriate conditions.”

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