Ex-con Speaks Out on Life and Death in Israeli Prison

He was shackled, gnawed by rats and had a cellmate commit suicide. After five jail terms, Yoni Yahav is focused on improving prison conditions in Israel

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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
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Tell me a little about yourself and about what you do.

I’m Yoni Yahav, divorced, with three children. I’ve gone through a thing or two in life. I’ve done time in prison. I have personally experienced the horror, and my goal in life at the moment is to make the Israeli public aware of what goes on in the country’s prisons.

You served five jail terms for fraud offenses. In which prisons were you incarcerated?

In all of them. From the north to the south. I’ve tried all the facilities of the Israel Prisons Service.

You were released from your latest prison term in May, and since then you’ve been leading what’s known as the “Prisoners’ Protest.”

The truth is I launched the protest while I was still inside. Before being released I opened a Facebook page and uploaded posts to it. I told the truth about things that happen in prison.

How did you do that – prisoners don’t have access to the internet.

With the telephone. Through someone to whom I dictated posts. From the start, there was interest – from the media, from lawyers. I realized that what I was doing could move things. I was interviewed while still in jail, anonymously of course [prisoners may not give interviews without permission]. The prison service figured out right away that it was me. I told them: What’s the big deal? Are you afraid that I’m going to reveal your true face? The public has the right to know. I was sentenced to two weeks in solitary and deprived of visits for two months, phone calls, canteen privileges.

Hermon prison in northern Israel, March 2020 Credit: Gil Eliahu

What did you hope to achieve?

There’s the famous comment by [former Supreme Court President] Aharon Barak, about how the inmate is deprived of his freedom, but not robbed of his humanity. In my view, the prison service is robbing inmates of their humanity, and the public needs to know that. The prisoners don’t have a lobby, no one cares about them, and I want to be their voice. During all my jail terms I was not silent – not when I was trampled upon and not when others were trampled upon. What I am doing now – being involved in demonstrations, court petitions, exposing things, offering aid to prisoners and their families – is really a continuation of what I did when I was inside. But it’s important to understand: My story is not one of revenge.

It’s not personal, it’s the system.

Yes. I have met amazing prison guards – ones who if they see you looking poorly, will ask you quietly whether everything is all right. When you’re thrown into solitary, they’ll go specially to their staff dining room and sneak out hot bourekas for you. There are quite a few like that, but there are plenty who want to move up by means of their evil. They’re intoxicated with power. You see the blows, the shackles, the torture.

Were you ever shackled?

Yes, for 48 hours.

Can you explain what that actually means?

You’re in a room far from everyone, in isolation, where it’s suffocating and stinks to high heaven. There’s only an iron bed, with loops on its sides. Your hands and legs are shackled to the loops. And that’s it.

For 48 hours?

Sometimes for a whole week. The guards are supposed to undo the shackles in the morning, at midday and in the evening, so you can relieve yourself and eat – for maybe 15 or 20 minutes each time. Beyond that they don’t have to do anything. If you need something you can call a guard, and if he feels like it he may even respond. Shackling is a tough scene. People crack. Urinate on themselves. I don’t think a regular person could last more than an hour in shackles. It’s impossible to move at all. The body is like a rock. You itch but you can’t scratch. You can’t change your position or turn over.

You mentioned torture earlier. What did you mean?

Torture, from my point of view, is being denied phone calls to your family and being denied visits. It’s hard to describe how painful that is. In prison, your only connection with the outside world is the telephone, and you live from visit to visit. When you realize that you won’t see your children for another few months, when you’re not permitted to talk to them – that is torture. People lose their sanity over that. And there are also the bedbugs. The prison is swarming. Think of yourself lying in bed and thousands of them crawl over you and simply suck your blood. They get into every place. Into every private corner of the body. Their bites turn into sores that itch so badly that you scratch with an iron comb and enjoy it. You can’t get rid of them. We tried everything.

‘The worst horror’

At the beginning of the month, a group of Knesset members visited Ayalon Prison. Predictably, they were shocked, and the photographs taken there were truly disturbing.

They’re shocking, but they only tell 30 percent of the story.

What about the other 70 percent?

They think things are bad in Ayalon? Let them go to the Kishon Detention Facility.

If I’m not mistaken, the Kishon facility [in northern Israel] dates from the British Mandate period. [Nazi war criminal Adolf] Eichmann was incarcerated there.

In general, the conditions in detention facilities are worse than in the prisons. In prison you at least have your own corner that you can clean and organize. Kishon is the worst horror.

In the photos from Ayalon we see inmates using bottles of water as weights on top of sewer covers to keep rats from coming out. How much worse can it be?

Much, much, much worse. I can tell you about my personal experience. I was in a large cell of about two meters with rats the size of mongooses. In one of my petitions I wrote: Your honor, the judge, I request that you come and see the rats in the prison, because it’s something you’ve never seen in your life. At night I would see them wandering in the exercise yard, chasing cats, and the cats would ran away from them.

Now, the thing with the weights? You take a 1.5-liter bottle, fill it up and lay it over the opening of the toilet, so the rats won’t come up from the sewer into the room. But rats are smart animals. They very quickly learn how to gnaw through the bottle from the bottom, and after the water leaks out through the hole, they move the bottle aside and enter. They come at night, climb on you, and if you move they think you’re attacking and they’ll bite off a bit. In the middle of the night you hear screams, pounding with brooms, things being thrown. It sounds like a fight, but we know it’s a fight with a rat.

I’m speechless.

Rats. Mice. Cockroaches in such numbers that you sometimes can’t see the wall. The transfers are true hell. Not that that interests the prison service. It’s like a train station anyway: This one comes and that one goes.

What do you mean by transfers?

Let’s say a prisoner is in a prison in the north and he has a hearing in a court in Be’er Sheva or Jerusalem. He leaves a day earlier, at 5 A.M. The [van] goes from prison to prison, collecting more and more prisoners. At every stop you have to wait. Within the van everyone’s hands and feet are manacled. Prisoners have a bottle for urinating. It’s only in the afternoon that they reach the transit station in Ramle. That’s hell itself. Cages upon cages, like for birds. They shove the prisoners in, so there’s always chaos and fights. A prisoner will spend a nightmarish night there, and in the morning he’ll go through the whole rigamarole with the van and its collecting more people, until he arrives at his hearing, and then again: from the court back to the prison. You leave in the morning and return that night. Two days on the road for a journey of two hours. Do you understand why prisoners aren’t eager to go to court for hearings? Why it sometimes looks as though they don’t care?

When I asked you if you had material you’d like me to see, you sent me recordings of prisoners and their families who have contacted you. It sounds just like people contacting a call center: “Listen, Yoni, this or that happened,” and you reply, “I’m dealing with it.” How do you deal with it?

I have the phone numbers of all the senior Israel Prison Service personnel. I get in touch with them via WhatsApp. I can get all the way to the commissioner. If that doesn’t help, I go on to MKs. Directly to Miki Haimovich [Kahol Lavan], Gideon Sa’ar [Likud], to MKs from the Joint List or from Shas. I bug them, I don’t leave them alone.

Sometimes what’s needed is to find out what’s going on. Let’s say a woman calls to ask if I know what’s happening in a particular prison; she hasn’t heard from her husband for a week. I check it out. Sometimes it also helps shore up the person to talk to me. Today every inmate in Israel has my phone number. They know about the prisoners’ protest and they know I’m here. Listen, this protest is the best therapy I’ve ever had.

Explain.

People who land in jail usually had a difficult childhood, were never hugged by anyone, wandered from one place to another and kept being told that they’re nothings, that they would never amount to anything. When you give someone like that hope, his road to rehabilitation has begun. It’s a different world when you hold a person and tell them: You made a mistake, you have to pay, but I’m waiting for you here, outside, to take you on a different path.

In an ideal world that’s the prison’s job: to rehabilitate the inmate and return him to society.

Well, the fact is they didn’t succeed in rehabilitating me. And I went through all the therapies they had to offer, from A to Z. Group. Individual. There’s no therapy I didn’t go through. Their tools didn’t help me in the slightest. Illiterate prisoners can learn how to read and write in prison, that’s true. But rehabilitation is a whole different story. It did nothing for me. On the contrary: I came out of every imprisonment in worse shape. Angrier. And 90 percent of the inmates are the same. Do you know what the rate is of prisoners who end up back in prison?

Not exactly, but I know it’s high. Some say it’s 50 percent, but I’ve also heard estimates of 80 percent.

I’ll explain something to you about therapy in prison. When a prisoner in Israel goes into therapy, his goal is not to change or become rehabilitated. The only thing that interests him is getting his sentence reduced by one-third. He knows that if he does therapy, he will be able to shorten his term significantly. Therapy in prison is what’s known as “the end justifies the means.” No more than that.

Because of the harsh conditions, there has been talk of reducing the number of prisoners and of releasing some before they have serve their full terms. That decision was deferred.

[Public Security Minister] Amir Ohana decided suddenly to postpone it. A blow below the belt. Why? I’ll tell you what I think. Budget. The prison service doesn’t want to forgo its funding; it’s like having a printing press for money. Do you know how much of a turnover they have from running all the telephone services? Over the top profits.

The profits from the canteens also go to the prison service.

The canteen is theirs. Sure. And what about the slave market? Prisoners go out every day to work in factories. They themselves get 1,000 to 1,200 shekels [$300-$350] a month, tops. Where’s the rest? Where does all the rest go? Into state coffers? Does anyone know where that money goes?

Suicide behind bars

Let’s talk about suicides in prison.

Every time a prisoner commits suicide, the prisons service appoints a committee of inquiry. How many conclusions from those committees do you know about? Zero. We know the case of [entertainer-comic] Dudu Topaz, because he was a celeb. Another prisoner, whom I knew personally, killed himself recently in a cell full of cameras. The service claimed there was a power outage, so that they couldn’t see it. I know there is no such thing as cameras shutting down; everything is connected to generators. You can really see when there’s a power outage in a prison: A light goes out for a second and then comes back on [when the generator kicks in]. You can’t commit suicide in that 100th of a second! Everything happens under the watchful eyes of the guards. The question is whether they bother to look.

Are you saying that the guards don’t care?

I’m saying that it [suicide] happens all the time. I myself was in a cell with a guy who killed himself. I got up in the morning and found him hanged in the bathroom. I can tell you about a case when I was a “supporting prisoner.” When they want to show that they trust you, they let you be responsible for another prisoner, mainly when it comes to psychiatric cases. One day they told me there was a new prisoner who was not willing to come into the prison. No problem, I said, I’ll talk to him. I did. I took a walk with him. I understood what the story was. I told them: Listen, this guy is locked onto suicide. He needs to be under close supervision. The social worker told me: Thank you, we’ll do our job, we didn’t ask for an opinion. What happened two hours later? They put him into a cell and he killed himself.

What do they do when someone commits suicide? They send in the social worker [to talk to the other inmates]. “Is everything all right with you? Do you need something?” They go to all the inmates in that wing. That’s it; everything is already prepared for the inquiry committee. What’s shredded is shredded, what’s buried is buried. And that’s precisely the reason the Prisoners’ Protest is needed. I’m submitting a request now to the state comptroller to receive recognition as a whistle-blower, because too many unpleasant things have been happening to me lately.

Such as what?

Threats. Suddenly I was questioned about things that happened in prison three and four years ago. I was summoned to an interrogation this week. I have another one next week, about something that happened three-and-a-half years ago. What’s with this sudden waking up?

The protest is pretty much a full-time job. What do you live from?

At the moment I’m getting a guaranteed income allowance and National Insurance, and I’m in vocational courses through the [Employment] Bureau. Beyond that, I do all kinds of things. There’s a nonprofit I work with, I send a lot of lawyers to inmates, so this one throws me a little [work] and that one throws me a little.

Some will read this and say to themselves: This guy’s been in prison a few times for serious offenses, so who is he to preach?

You know, they’re right. I served five prison terms. It’s a fact. But beyond that, they don’t know a thing. And I myself am nothing at all. What interests me now is to help. Recently I uploaded a post to the Prisoners’ Protest about a family that had a financial problem. Within two hours they were deluged with food, clothes and other things – donations of 15,000 shekels.

Sounds like it gives you a lot of satisfaction.

Huge satisfaction. And also shows me something of the road I missed.

What did you miss?

A lot. Today it’s hard to get into the job market. It’s hard for people to trust someone with a past like that.

You don’t think you’ll return to a life of crime?

No. I love what I am doing now. I’m speaking to you frankly: I will not return to a life of crime. Enough, no crime, it doesn’t pay, not economically and for sure not in any other way. I’m way past that. I have dozens of [psychological] scars from prison. I will not go back there.

A prisoner showing bug bites on his hand in Ayalon Prison, Ramle, November 1, 2020.Credit: MK Miki Haimovich

You went there five times.

So, what of it? They didn’t rehabilitate me, I explained it to you.

I’m not sure I understood your argument. Try to explain it to me. After all, you can’t blame the Israel Prison Service for the choices you make outside.

I don’t say that they are responsible. I say that the moment you enter prison for the first time, the choices you will have on the outside have already changed. You are already not the same person. During that period you learn and see what goes on there – the contempt for human beings, the awful attitude, the violence, the manipulations, the punishment. They make your life bitter.

When you come out of prison you are done for, mentally. You have fallen apart. You’re exhausted from the war against the system. You always time imagine what it will be like when you get out, what you’ll do, but you’re already a different person. Your heart, if it was soft, has become hard. You hook up with people, and when you get out you say to yourself: Yallah, fuck this country, I’ll do what I want.

Can you describe for me the difference between who you were when you were first imprisoned, and the last time?

The first time I was scared. After I got through the fear stage, I had to learn how you behave in prison. In Rome do as the Romans do. Afterward I already knew where I was going.

Didn’t you think after the first time: Maybe this life isn’t for me?

I always thought that. I’m also not from a family like that – it’s not the upbringing I received at home. But in jail you get taught all the wonders and secrets of crime, you come out of prison a criminal expert, bitter at the establishment, at the whole world. Almost all the inmates return to prison. The prison service has an interest in that happening. I honestly believe that they advocate recidivism. It serves them.

What’s most important for you to achieve in this protest? If you could ask for just one achievement, what would it be?

Supervision of the prison service by an external body that is not part of the Public Security Ministry or the state prosecution or the police or the Shin Bet [security service]. An external, completely independent body. Maybe one made up of retired judges. They would make the rounds of the prisons, supervise and make surprise visits. Not visits that [the prisons can] prepare for, for weeks in advance. And not surprise visits like those that take place now, when they’re told at the gate that they can’t enter with all kinds of excuses, while in the meantime everything [inside] is quickly organized.

The conditions in Israeli prisons are known to be appalling. There is this ritual, where the public defenders issue their reports, or MKs come for a visit, and everyone is shocked. All this surfaces regularly but it totally ignored. No one cares. It’s so depressing.

An organized force of people can do a lot: create public awareness, public empathy that can change the situation. I’m all in. I can’t stop. I feel that if I disappear it’s as though I left a body in the battlefield. I’ll ask you a question: If you’re in a restaurant and someone falls down next to you, won’t you help them up?

Of course.

Well, in prison someone falls every minute. Every minute something happens to someone, and you hear their suffering and the shouts and the crying on the phone to the family. You are constantly living the suffering of others. It’s very hard to stay sane. I can tell you that a great many people have gone insane in prison, many have committed suicide in prison and many did so after their release. Aharon Barak said that the face of the country is the face of its prisoners. So this country has no face at all. Whoever stole, robbed, committed a crime must pay for what he did, but he is also a human being.

I, who went through five prison terms, I who am also a believer – maybe I had to go through all that in order to arrive at the person I am today. So I can’t say that prison only destroys. Maybe there are people who need to undergo that experience so their life will change for the better.

You seem to be one of them.

Yes. I’ve been reborn. But not thanks to the Israel Prison Service.

•••

The Israel Prison Service sent the following statement to Haaretz in response to the interview: “The allegation that the prison service profits from incarceration is an outrageous, mendacious claim that is part of the fake news concerning the organization’s activity. The service is responsible solely for supplying the places in which people are incarcerated, not for populating them. The service is a national, professional organization that meticulously provides optimal treatment, suitable incarceration and safe custody out of concern for the wellbeing, security, welfare and rehabilitation of the criminal inmates.

“Half of the incarceration facilities are old, and the prison service is constantly working to improve living conditions and the structures by means of its organizational capabilities and resources, and we will continue to do so. At the same time, there is no doubt that implementation of the government’s decisions and the transfer of proper budgets for new incarceration facilities will bring about a change in the societal approach and in the importance attributed to rehabilitating prisoners and providing respectable opportunities for them upon their return to society after serving their term of punishment.”

A shower in Ayalon Prison, Ramle, November 1, 2020.Credit: MK Miki Haimovich
A bottle directing the water flow in a shower in Ayalon Prison, Ramle, November 1, 2020.Credit: MK Miki Haimovich

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