Public Defender Inbal Rubinstein, Why Don't Prison Conditions Improve?

Tomer Zarchin goes head to head with Public Defender Inbal Rubinstein.

The report published yesterday by Justice Ministry's Public Defender's Office portrays a very dark picture of disgraceful conditions in Israeli prisons in 2009 and 2010 - overcrowding, poor sanitation and an absence of proper rehabilitation and proper support for prisoners.

The national public defender, Inbal Rubenstein is expected to retire in the coming months after eight years on the job. The attorney relates to the findings with due seriousness, but sees over the years the system's attempt to bring about improvement.

rubinstein - Daniel Tchetchik - August 17 2011
Daniel Tchetchik

One gets the impression that reports by the public defender pile up - year after year - and the situation in the prisons does not improve.

I actually see a change in the attitude of the Israel Prison Service to the reports, and I feel there's a desire to correct and to change. This can be seen in the transparency and openness of the IPS; the allocation of a special staff to handle problems of living conditions; investment in construction and renovation of prison facilities. The IPS commission sees the improvement of living conditions as an objective. First and foremost, they don't treat us, who are the ones who warn of shortcomings, as enemies, but rather as partners.

Perhaps the problem is not with the upper echelon of the IPS but in the field, with decisions made by the individual guard.

Apparently the source of many of the problems lies in a defective translation of orders and instructions from above. Sometimes there's a disproportionate and incorrect implementation of existing instructions.

Let's talk about one of the serious shortcomings exposed by the report - cuffing prisoners hand and foot as a means of punishment or as a disproportionate method of protecting prisoners liable to harm themselves. Were you surprised by the use of restraints on prisoners?

That is really a serious phenomenon. Anyone who travels to classical Europe and goes into cellars where prisoners were kept, fortresses where they were held, has seen dark, filthy and damp rooms, where prisoners were shackled. But that happens here, too - not much, but in the 21st century, in modern Israel, prisoners sit cuffed hand and foot, sometimes for months at a time, in foul-smelling cells, with cockroaches climbing over them.

Why does that happen, if there are clear instructions from the IPS as to when to place restraints and when not to do so?

Because often a guard does not always use proper judgment, and prefers cuffing a prisoner to taking the risk that he may harm himself. There's also the desire of the IPS, especially after suicide attempts in prison have received wide media coverage in recent years, to be on the safe side and to cuff anyone liable to harm himself.

In other words, disproportionate restraint to prevent the IPS from being blamed if, God forbid, a prisoner commits suicide.

Correct. Recent suicides have caused the IPS to take overblown defensive measures. I think that cuffing a person's hands for five months, 24 hours a day, when all the psychiatric reports state that he's not a danger himself, is unreasonable and designed to achieve unreasonable self-defense. To be on the safe side, just in order not to be held responsible for a suicide, should it happen - I consider that an easy solution.

Basically it's said there's poor conditions in some prison facilities because of budgetary constraint. Do you accept this explanation?

Cuffing is not related to a budget. The fact that there are cockroaches, mice and rats in a certain section is not related to a budget - and certainly not to a large budget.

How do you relate to the social protest of recent weeks and its connection to the rights of detainees and prisoners?

There is clearly a strong connection between economic policy and the rates of imprisonment. In welfare states in Europe, which have considerable crime rates, far fewer people are imprisoned relative to Israel, for example. The conditions in the prisons in those countries are excellent.

The issue is that everything begins and ends with the order of priorities, because a country that in advance provides more for education and higher education and welfare does not have large expenditures on imprisonment.

Imprisonment is very expensive, even if you provide poor conditions for the prisoners. If the money were channeled to the proper places, that would also save money for the state coffers and fewer people would have to be sent to prison. In the United States they also understood that the meteoric increase in the number of prisoners overburdens the budget, and that it's preferable to rehabilitate prisoners in the community.

Here, even after they have sent a person to prison, they don't prepare him for the day when he leaves and perhaps rehabilitates himself. Because of the order of priorities there's no budget for rehab in prison, and they don't reduce the chances of recidivism.

Is Israel insensitive to the rights of prisoners?

It's populist to say that. I don't think there's insensitivity. Israel is exceptional in a positive sense, in that here there's a mechanism enabling a prisoner to submit a prisoner's petition to a district court judge and to ask or to complain about his conditions of imprisonment. There is no insensitivity. There is an incorrect order of priorities and budget allocation.

You'll soon be concluding eight years in the job. Looking back, do you think that the situation is better, in terms of the rights of the accused and of detainees and prisoners?

I think there's a change in the IPS in connection with holding prisoners and detainees. In the courts as well, there's a stronger tendency to observe fair procedure in connection with the accused.

Today, according to ruling, the court can invalidate evidence that was obtained improperly by the legal authorities, that undermines the rights of suspects and the accused, and that is a significant improvement over what was once customary. The legislation is improving and provides more help to those accused of crimes. Court decisions are also making their contribution. For example the High Court of Justice's ruling against privatization of prison facilities is a milestone.

On the other hand, what still constitutes an obstacle in terms of the rights of the accused?

Sometimes the desire to conduct a trial quickly, stemming from a desire to be more efficient, comes at the expense of the rights of the accused. Sometimes, the cry of the masses leads to a demonization of sex criminals and a desire to treat them harshly.

You sometimes represent the only voice that shows concern for the rights of suspects, the accused and those who have been convicted, because they have no lobby.

It's true they have no lobby, but there is still a human rights lobby, and I must say that we are listened to in the Knesset, the cabinet, government ministries. I can't say that nobody listens to us - on the contrary.

You are supposed to retire soon, and your name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Supreme Court, in the next round of appointments. Is that something you want?

I haven't heard about it. To be a judge in Israel, certainly in the highest courts, is a very great challenge for any jurist.