Not Fit for Human Habitation

The demand for equal treatment cannot be denied to women prisoners and victims, even if the custom in Israel is to accept the violation of prisoners' human rights with equanimity.

The head of the prison service, Aharon Franco, recently conceded that some of Israel's prisons are not fit to hold inmates. Franco is considering relocating the Neveh Tirza prison, Israel's only women's prison, to the south. Hopefully this will happen soon. Since its establishment in 1968, Neveh Tirza has had a capacity of 229 inmates. In 2010, Israel had 139 female inmates behind bars and 50 women suspects in detention, while there were 22,000 male prisoners.

This large number of male prisoners led to the construction of a number of prisons, which allows the authorities to detain juveniles, drug addicts and emotionally disturbed prisoners suitably. For women sentenced to prison, there is no such maneuvering room. Few in number, it seems as though they are condemned to a dual punishment. Neveh Tirza's cells are cramped; the facility does not separate types of prisoners or make preliminary classifications of new inmates.

You can find there an 18-year-old woman incarcerated for the first time alongside much older, veteran women inmates. Women awaiting trial are confined with convicted criminals, drug addicts are put in the same cell with "clean" inmates, and there are emotionally disturbed inmates behind bars in unsuitable conditions. This situation does not promote rehabilitation. Instead, it's a fast track to worse criminal behavior.

The prison service makes an effort to ease the harshness of this facility. It runs a library, a small animal corner and an area for meetings with children. But this is not enough. Most cells are 13 square meters large (including toilet and shower ); on average, six inmates are held in cells this size. That means each inmate receives, on average, two square meters of space, while UN guidelines stipulate a minimum of eight square meters.

Research shows that overcrowding in prisons increases violence among inmates, depression, emotional disorders and suicide. Indeed, many inmates at Neveh Tirza suffer from emotional problems; about a third take prescribed psychiatric medication. In many cases, improved conditions are needed to forestall emotional tailspins. Particularly disturbing is that no prison has a psychologist on staff, only a part-time psychiatrist. Moreover, since 70 percent of the inmates are mothers, rehabilitation is key for the sake of the children as well.

Neveh Tirza provides an unnerving glimpse of women's lives in the country. Some 90 percent of the inmates experienced sexual abuse during childhood. These are women without stable home backgrounds; they bring to the prison histories of violence, neglect and abuse. More than half are substance abusers. A number of prison directors have spoken with brave compassion and candor about the damage caused by overcrowding and the need to make prison conditions more humane. Reports by public defenders repeatedly refer to the same issues.

One issue impeding a prison service decision to relocate Neveh Tirza is the relative remoteness of the proposed new location. Some argue that inmates' relatives would not be able to visit, but the truth is that about half of inmates' close relatives never visit, and the prison service can provide transportation for relatives, as it does with prisons in the country's outskirts.

I have visited prisons in recent years. After each visit, I get the feeling that what is termed "Israeli society's back lot" is in fact the most focused, revealing image of the society itself. The research literature categorizes women criminals as victims of systematic sexual and emotional abuse. The demand for equal treatment cannot be denied to these women prisoners and victims, even if the custom in Israel is to accept the violation of prisoners' human rights with equanimity.