Court calls on IPS to publish inmates' book rules

Decision ends three-year legal battle by prisoners for access to reading material.

Prison jail generic (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prison jail generic
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Supreme Court on Monday said the Israel Prisons Service should publish amended regulations regarding the number of books prisoners are permitted to have.
The call came in a ruling on an appeal the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and two women prisoners filed in 2009 against a Tel Aviv District Court ruling on the issue of inmates’ access to reading material.
The Prisons Service told the court last May that it had made sweeping changes to its regulations regarding access to books, but had yet to formally publish in its Commission Orders what the new regulations were.
The legal battle over access to books started in June 2009 when ACRI petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court on behalf of three female inmates at the Neveh Tirza Prison. The petition came immediately after the Prisons Service altered its policy regarding the number of books and music CDs prisoners were permitted to have.
Under previous policy, inmates were allowed to have up to eight books in their cells and could receive up to five new books every two months from visitors, as well as newspapers and magazines.
The new policy at the time restricted the number of books allowed in cells to just one, plus four textbooks for prisoners undertaking formal study, or four books of religious text for religious prisoners. It also banned prisoners from receiving any books, magazines or newspapers from visitors and restricted them to reading material from the prison library. In addition, they could now keep no more than 10 music CDs in their cells.
ACRI argued in its petition that the new regulations severely limited prisoners’ reading choices and discriminated against those who could not read Hebrew. The civil rights group said the Neveh Tirza prison library held only 1,000 books, most of which were in Hebrew. Only 2% were in Arabic.
When the Tel Aviv District Court rejected the petition, the civil rights group and prisoners appealed the verdict in the Supreme Court. In 2010 the top court ordered the Prisons Service to file a detailed response explaining why it had decided to change its book policy.
Last May, the service told the court it had decided yet again to change its book policy. The newest policy allowed all inmates up to three reading books.
Those prisoners registered as religious would be permitted, in addition to the three reading books, two religious books, while religious inmates also registered in a course of study would also be permitted two textbooks, to a maximum of seven books. Non-religious prisoners would be permitted a total of five books under the new rules.
In addition, prisoners would also be allowed to receive two books per month from visitors, as long as the total number of books in their possession did not exceed their allotted quota. Inmates would also be allowed up to 10 music CDs.
Although the Supreme Court rejected ACRI’s appeal saying that the Prison Service’s decision to update its regulations meant the court had no place to intervene, the panel of justices – President (Emeritus) Dorit Beinisch, Hanan Melcer and Yoram Danziger – said in their ruling that the service should publish its updated policy in its Commission Orders, and should do so soon.
Beinisch said that since the service had informed the court of its updated police 10 months ago, it was “difficult to accept” that it had not yet formally published the policy. It was not enough to just make statements on policy changes, she added.
Melcer wrote in the ruling that he thought the Prisons Service should consider allowing inmates the opportunity to have additional books and suggested they be held for safekeeping in the prison library.
ACRI welcomed the Supreme Court’s order that the Prisons Service officially publish its amended regulations. Attorney Lila Margalit, director of ACRI’s Human Rights in the Criminal Process Program, said the Prisons Service had harmed inmates’ fundamental rights to freedom of expression as well as the right to educate themselves and acquire knowledge.
“[The Prisons Service also harmed] the public’s interest in rehabilitating prisoners,” Margalit said. “The Supreme Court was right not to be satisfied with the Prisons Service’s statements about change and to demand that a change be made to the Prisons Service Commission Orders.”