Jail cell: still publicly run
Jail cell: still publicly runIsrael news photo

A nine-justice Supreme Court panel, led by Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, ruled on Friday that the law mandating a privately-run prison in Israel must be revoked. The State will thus purchase the building that has already been built for the purpose just south of Be'er Sheva, and the would-be operators will be reimbursed not only for their expenses, but also for expected profits.

The court ruled that handing over prisoners into the hands of those who are incarcerating them for profit violates their basic civil rights regarding human dignity and personal freedom. The ruling was handed down in favor of the petitioners, the Human Rights Division of the Ramat Gan Law College, a lawyer prisoner named Yadin Machnes, and others.

Judge Beinisch, writing the majority opinion, explained that the law would have given the prison operators and their employees very invasive rights vis-a-vis the prisoners. For instance, the manager would be able to give instructions for the following: isolation of a prisoner for up to 48 hours, a visual check of his unclothed body, and “reasonable force” for the sake of a body check. These and other authorities, though less than what Israel Prison Service officials currently enjoy, are unacceptably invasive, the judges ruled.

Beinisch emphasized, however, that the very transfer of incarceration and related authorities to profit-based elements is a violation of prisoners’ rights to dignity, regardless of the extent to which these authorities are actually harmful.

Beinisch also wrote that in other countries, private prisons have led to the growth of political lobbies for stricter sentencing of criminals. This claim, however, was negated by a representative of the group that had won the tender to operate the prison, who said that his contract with the State explicitly stated that he would be paid according to the amount of available beds in the prison, and not according to how many of them were occupied.

Judge Beinisch wrote that the State’s authority to use force against a citizen and incarcerate him is “one of the most basic and offensive authorities of a State, [and] the legitimacy of the right to negate freedoms is dependent upon the fact that [it is done] in order to advance the public interest – and not a private interest [such as making money for a private body].”

The fact that the State would like to save money and have prisons run more efficiently is not a “supreme value” when dealing with the most basic human rights with which the State is entrusted with maintaining.

Other justices added comments in the same vein. Only Justice Edmond Levy dissented, explaining that though he agreed in principle with his colleagues, it would be advisable to wait to see how the private jail is run – in light of the bad state of current incarceration conditions - before outlawing it.

The commercially-run prison was to have opened its doors several months ago, holding 800 low-to-medium security prisoners serving up to seven years in jail. It is owned by ALA Management and Operations, a subsidiary of three companies: Lev Leviev's Africa-Israel, an Israeli construction company, and Emerald Corrections, a Louisiana-based company that operates several private detention centers in Texas.