Prisoners of the election: Thousands of inmates line up to vote at facilities across Israel

Prisoners to do their part, albeit limited, to decide the makeup of the 20th Knesset.

March 17, 2015 16:00
3 minute read.
inmate election

Inmates casting votes . (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)

These voters already have a roof over their heads, but for the 165 inmates in Block 2 of Ma’asiyahu Prison, the cost of living and housing prices are still major issues.

Just like in the rest of the country, the ballot boxes opened at prisons and detention facilities Tuesday, allowing prisoners to do their part to decide the makeup of the 20th Knesset.

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According to the Prisons Service, there are around 10,000 inmates who are eligible to vote at 60 polling stations at 32 facilities. The only requirement is that an inmate is a citizen; severity of the crime does not effect eligibility.

This includes citizens sentenced for security crimes as well.

Ma’asiyahu is the largest prison for criminal, non-security prisoners, with some 1,190 inmates. It has also famously been home to a number of former politicians, including Shas MK Shlomo Benizri and party head Arye Deri, and most famously, ex-president Moshe Katsav.

To the dismay of this reporter and a couple others present Tuesday morning, Katsav did not show to cast his vote in the small voting booth set up in the courtyard of Block 2. When asked if it’s hard to find people from the election committee willing to work the booths at the prison, Assistant-Warden Ofer Ben- Shmuel, the commander of Ma’asiyahu, said they tend to ask specifically to work at prison stations, because there’s fewer fights and arguments than at the ones on the outside.

“Here they know it will be organized, one person at a time, and there won’t be fights or arguments.”

He added that the Prisons Service had an 80% turnout for prisoners during the last election. That would be significantly higher than the 63% overall turnout, though here the election has literally a captive audience and one can’t help but think that voting may help break the monotony of yet another day behind bars.

The system does appear to be well organized, though that might be partly because this cell block is for low-security offenders, including elderly inmates and ones with medical problems, including white collar offenders. Since the inmates don’t carry identification, they wait in the block and then are called one by one to a table in the middle of the courtyard.

There the inmates presents their numbers to the guard, who checks it on a computer and then gives them a printout of their prisoner ID, which they then take to the booth and wait in line one by one, after being frisked and inspected with a metal detector.

Though reporters were asked not to quiz inmates about their vote, one middle- aged man answered that he was voting “for Maran, only for Maran,” referring to deceased Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. He said everyone else was voting for Shas, though the Arabs were going with the Joint List.

Ben-Shmuel said he doesn’t think prisoners deserve to lose their right to vote after breaking the law, saying “we see the inmates as part of society, so this is not a question for us, and also it’s the law so it’s not up to us anyway.”

“Y,” a young prisoner who has served five years already for committing a white-collar crime, said he understands how law-abiding citizens could find his right to vote as objectionable, but ultimately he disagrees.

“For me it’s very important to vote because while we’re out of society now, it’s not forever and we have children and a future and we also want to help determine the future of the country.”

Y said the cost of living was the biggest issue for him, and that he would vote for Yesh Atid, as he did last election.

“What bothers me most is the cost of housing. The moment we get out of here [prison] we’re going to need to find a place to live and it’s just too expensive in Israel.”

He added that the inmates are all keeping up with the news just like the public outside, suggesting that even behind bars it’s hard to escape the election coverage. He said he thinks the focus on security is exaggerated, and added, without irony, that maybe the prison could serve as a model for the country.

“We live here together in peace – Jews, Muslims, Druse, Christians, side by side. If only the whole country could be like this,” he said, adding “maybe the Prisons Service should start a political party.”

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