Marianne Azizi writes:
Between 1996 and 2013 the number of prisoners in Israel has doubled but in 40 per cent of cases the space they occupy is less than 3 square metres.
A report by the public defender shows that only 11 per cent of prisoners have living space of more than 4.5 sq m, a quarter of the inmates are assigned a maximum of 2.9 sq m and more than half of the prisoners (59 per cent ) live in 3 sq m or less. Some 43 per cent of cells hold nine prisoners or more, and 75 per cent have more than four prisoners, though prison and detention regulations stipulate no more than four beds per cell. Across the Western world, the average space per prisoner is 8.8 sq.m.
Less room than for a dog in a kennel
It’s the heat of summer in Israel, and the prisons are full to bursting with illegal detainees. The presumption of innocence hardly counts. Hearings for alternative arrangements, such as bail and house arrest, especially in the Tel Aviv district, don’t even dent the numbers.
In Nitzan Prison, Ramle, where two Israeli human rights defenders, including lawyer Zvi Zer, have been held for almost five months, the conditions are simply awful. Prisoners are allocated less space than for a dog in a kennel and don’t even have glass in the windows. The heat is excruciating.
Cells which should hold six people are packed with up to 10 prisoners. Many prisoners have to sleep on mattresses infested with insects and suffer from mosquito bites from the glassless windows), resulting in open wounds and infections.
The food is described as meagre at best. At Nitzan Prison the authorities tried to impress the inspectors on the day of their visit by giving prisoners sausages and rice. After the visit, prisoners described this as a rich meal – and only for show.
Illegally detained prisoners are prevented from buying supplementary food in the prison canteen to top up their rations. The shower/sanitation facilities are horrendous. Some describe the toilet as a hole in the ground, with toilet paper rarely provided. One released detainee described his eight-day solitary confinement in Jerusalem as follows:
I was chained hands and feet, with a hole in the ground to perform toilet duties. I had no shower, nor toilet paper for three days, and each time I yelled for assistance I was just ignored or shouted at.
Cells stink with the foul, rancid odour of prisoners. There is no availability for counselling or other help for detainees. Prisoners charged with different types of offences can end up sharing the same cell – a tax evader sitting with a serial killer, for example!
Pleading “guilty” as the only means of escape
Imagine if you were arrested for a democratic protest, which is frowned upon in Israel. These are the conditions you may find yourself in. It is commonly known that this method of humiliation and mental torture can result in the state prosecutors securing pleas of “guilty” – because that could be the only way for someone who has committed no crime to go home.
Illegal detention in the Tel Aviv district is compounded by former police prosecutor-turned-judge Abraham Heiman who is proud of being the only judge never to give house arrest or bail.
At the end of July, the Israeli courts go into recess until September, with little thought for the detainees suffering for alleged crimes with no ability to defend themselves.
The irony is that those who wrote about the corruption in the judicial system, the police and government ministries are the ones who are now incarcerated for months in appalling conditions while others under investigation for those crimes are given a few days’ house arrest and are able to carry on with their lives and work.
This situation contravenes the Israeli Supreme Court ruling that freedom and dignity should be afforded to all citizens, even those who are detained, and that alternatives to detention should be explored for the sake of the health and wellbeing of people who are only suspected of crimes.