Overcrowding in Israeli Prisons Reaches New High

1.37 square meters living space at Ofer detention center.

The average living space allocated to prisoners at the Ofer detention center is 1.37 square meters.

THe figures were presented yesterday by the Prisons Authority to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. The prison, situated just north of Jerusalem, was designed for almost 900 security prisoners and last year was transfered from the authority of the Military Police to the Prisons Authority.

The situation at the Kishon Prison near Haifa isn't much better. The 700 security and criminal prisoners there have an average living space of 1.97-square-meters per person. In the Ramon Prison, the area is 2.04 square meters, in the Shata Prison 2.16 and in the Carmel Prison 2.20.

The average space alloted to an Israeli prisoner on average has dropped in recent years from 3.4 square meters to only 2.9.

In comparison, European prisons have an average of 4.5-square-meters per prisoner.

The chairman of the committee, MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), demanded immediate solutions from the Prisons Authority yesterday for prisoners in the Kishon and Ofer prisons, mandating that their living space would increased to at least 2 square meters each. Also, Ben-Sasson demanded that no prisoner will have less than 3 square meters within a year from today.

Prisons Authority Legal Adviser Haim Shmuelevich explained that it is difficult to solve the overcrowding problem by moving prisoners around between prisons. This is because it is not possible to incarcerate youths with adults, or security prisoners with ordinary criminals.

One of the ways to ease the overcrowding is by trading jail time for community service. The Public Defender's Office is now proposing to increase the length of the prison time that can be exchanged for community service from six to nine months.

The Justice Committee yesterday discussed the Prisons Authority's request to raise the number of criminals that can be held in prisons from 18,900 to 20,800. Some 21,500 criminals are incarcerated today.

The service explained the requested increase in the official number of spaces because of an actual increase of 1,650 prisoners. The official ceiling of approved prisoners represents the limit after which the Prisons Commissioner can order the administrative release of prisoners.

This official limit is approved annually by the Knesset. Since 2003, the number will have doubled, from about 10,400 in 2003 to the requested 20,800 in 2008.

One of the main causes of the increase in the prison population is the transfer of military detention centers to the Prisons Authority.

The chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), proposed making the closure of the Ofer Prison a condition for approving the increased limits.