Justice Ministry Nixes Plans to Exempt Security Prisoners From Improved Conditions

High court ordered prisoner cell space to be enlarged by March, and the Public Security Ministry is considering moving some prisoners to tents to address the overcrowding

Ofer prison near Ramallah
Daniel Bar-On/Gini

The Justice Ministry has put a halt to plans by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to attempt to exempt security prisoners from a court order requiring the improvement of prison conditions.

In June, the High Court of Justice ruled that inmates must be given more cell space to address prison overcrowding in the country. After considering the ruling, the Justice Ministry recently determined, with the approval of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, that it applies to all prison inmates in Israel, including security prisoners.

The high court ruling did not make a distinction between prisoners in general and so-called security prisoners, generally Palestinians, who are implicated in terrorism or other activity related to state security. The court in fact explicitly mentioned greater overcrowding problems affecting security prisoners.

In requiring that the state provide prisoners additional cell space, the court said Israeli prisons “aren’t fit for human habitation." Existing rules required that each inmate have at least 3 square meters (32 square feet) of space, compared to a European average of 8.8 square meters. Ruling on a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Academic Center for Law and Business in Ramat Gan, the high court ordered the minimum be increased to 4 square meters by March 2018 and to 4.5 square meters by the end of 2018. In response, Public Security Minister Erdan promoted legislation that would have exempted security prisoners from the ruling, meaning that their conditions would not be improved.

The Public Security Ministry has concluded that it would need to build four new prisons if it is to meet the high court requirements for the country's current prison population. This is not financially feasible and construction of the new facilities cannot be completed within the time frame dictated by the court.

One possible solution to the overcrowding for country's more than 6,000 security prisoners is to accommodate a large number of them in tents. Some prisoners at the Ketziot prison in the western Negev are already housed in tents. In addition, the government is considering other solutions, for all prisoners, such as reopening older prison wings that have been shut down or asking the high court to postpone the deadlines by a year.

The public security minister is also seeking to reduce the prison population. One of his potential solutions would involve allowing criminals to be eligible for parole after serving only half of their sentences, instead of the current two-thirds. He also would like to increase the number of people sentenced to community service rather than prison terms. At present, only prisoners sentenced to terms of six months or less are eligible to do community service, and Erdan wants this raised to nine months.

In addition to the 6,000 security prisoners in Israeli jails, there are about 12,000 other prison inmates. At Ofer prison near Ramallah in the West Bank, each security prisoner has about 2.2 square meters of space, while at the Nitzan, Ramon and Ketziot prisons, they each have about 2.4 square meters of space. A 2013 government commission found that Israeli prison crowding was among the worst in the Western world and said poor conditions have undermined efforts to rehabilitate convicts.

In his high court ruling in June, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein said conditions did not meet the prison service’s standards or Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. Anne Suciu, a lawyer from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said Erdan’s proposal to exempt security prisoners from the ruling is absurd and has no legal basis. “The court also stated explicitly that there was no basis for making a distinction between security and criminal prisoners and ruled that its ruling applied to all prisoners," she said.

The Justice Ministry said that, in gearing up to implement the court decision, the legal aspects of many issues are under examination, including those raised by the Public Security Ministry. The Justice Ministry confirmed that its legal advisers and the attorney general had come to the conclusion that the conditions set down by the court must be carried out for all prisoners. “Discussions are being held and various solutions are being considered,” the Justice Ministry said.

The Israel Prison Service spokesman acknowledged that the government and its relevant agencies are required to implement the High Court of Justice decision, adding that various ministries, including the Finance Ministry, in addition to the public security and justice ministries, are holding discussions on the matter due to the major budget that will apparently be required, but no "operative decisions" have yet been taken.