The High Court of Justice in Israel put an end to years of controversy Thursday, November 19, by ruling that privately run prisons are unconstitutional. The full text of this landmark decision is currently only available in Hebrew on the Court’s website [here]. I will post the English translation when it becomes available; however, the main reasoning and implications of the case discussed below should be suggestive of its importance.

The panel of nine justices, presided over by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, ruled in an 8-1 decision that a transfer of authority for managing the prison from the state to a private contractor whose aim is monetary profit would severely violate the prisoners’ basic human rights to dignity and freedom. (See Tomer Zarchin, International legal precedent: No private prisons in Israel, HAARETZ)

In 2004, the Knesset passed Amendment 28 to the Prisons Ordinance, which permitted the establishment of private prisons in Israel. The state’s motivation was to save money by transferring prisoners to facilities managed by a private firm, to be chosen by tender. The state would pay the franchisee $50 per day for each inmate, but would be spared the cost of building new prisons and expanding the Israel Prison Service’s staff.

In 2005, the human rights department of the Academic College of Law in Ramat Gan filed a petition to the High Court challenging the amendment. The petition relied on two arguments. First, it said, transferring prison powers to private hands would violate the prisoners’ fundamental human rights to liberty and dignity. And second, a private organization always aims to maximize profit, and would therefore seek to cut costs by, for instance, skimping on prison facilities and paying its guards poorly, thus further undermining the prisoners’ rights.

President Beinisch held that, while the amendment was passed in part due to a desire to improve prison conditions, the main purpose of the change was economic – namely, to save the state money. Normally, the ruling noted, the court does not intervene in economic policies decided upon by the cabinet and Knesset. But in this case, Beinisch wrote, the legislation harms basic constitutional rights. Thus the amendment’s economic aspect is not the decisive factor that the court must weigh in exercising its power of judicial review.

Israel’s basic legal principles, she continued, hold that the right to use force in general, and the right to enforce criminal law by putting people behind bars in particular, is one of the most fundamental and one of the most invasive powers in the state’s jurisdiction. Thus when the power to incarcerate is transferred to a private corporation whose purpose is making money, the act of depriving a person of his liberty loses much of its legitimacy. Because of this loss of legitimacy, the violation of the prisoner’s right to liberty goes beyond the violation entailed in the incarceration itself.

Beinisch also argued that in a prison run by a private company, prisoners’ rights are undermined by the fact that the inmates are transformed into a means of extracting profit. Efficiency, she wrote, is not a supreme value when the most basic and important human rights for which the state is responsible are at stake.

The implications of the case

Following the decision, the state is expected to have to pay hundreds of millions of shekels in compensation to a company that had already completed construction of the first private prison, near Be’er Sheva.

Attorney Gilad Barnea, who represented the college, told The Jerusalem Post that “the ruling is very important because it establishes clear boundaries regarding what is permissible and what is not when it comes to transferring functions from the state to private hands. It is also important because the court determined that the social covenant is an important element in human liberty and that the court may overrule legislation that diminishes it.”

Barnea added that the ruling set a world-wide precedent. So far, there had been only one other court challenge to the legality of a private prison – in Costa Rica – and the court rejected it. He said he was certain that other countries would study the High Court ruling carefully and that, at least in this sense, “we will be a light unto the nations.”

He also said the ruling would have an immediate effect on three other cases involving the state’s intention to privatize. One of the cases involves the hiring of private instructors at the police training center. A second involves the hiring of private instructors for the huge army base near Ramat Hovav in the Negev. The third is the government’s intention to privatize the Bailiff’s Office and the center for collecting fines.

Another article in Haaretz describes the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision as dropping a bombshell. According to the article, the bombshell dropped is hidden in one of the ruling’s final pages. “Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote that so far, no American, British or New Zealand court has had to rule on whether privatizing prisons is unconstitutional. But many experts, she noted, have argued that if this question did arise in Europe, it would be rejected out of hand as contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thus four years after the petition was filed and about a year after the concessionaire finished building the first private prison – where 2,000 prisoners were slated to be sent – Israel’s High Court has effected a revolution: It ruled in firm, unequivocal language that the problem is not the nature of the prison or the concessionaire. Rather, it said, the very principle of privatizing prisons is unconstitutional.

The High Court stressed that it was not intervening in the relations between the state and the concessionaire, who hastened to demand massive compensation. Instead, it addressed other aspects of the issue.

This ruling will not only be studied in Israel, it will also doubtless generate a conceptual revolution worldwide. And Beinisch was clearly aware of this. The ruling rests on the political and moral thought of the great philosophers who discussed the modern state and its administration, as well as on the sharp, clear statements Prof. Aharon Barak used in establishing the basis for his constitutional legislation.

The “social welfare” lobby will probably laud the court as moral and humane, and perhaps even socialist. That would be a mistake. Beinisch cites Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and accompanies every one of her arguments with citations from Barak, who stressed that human rights must not be left in the hands of any legislator.”


Last Thursday’s judgment comes at the end of a long discussion in Israel about the proper limits on transferring of authority from the state to the private sector that found both supporters and opponents (see, e.g., this Roundtable Forum held at the Israel Democracy Institute) and skepticism in the academic literature (see Uri Timor, Privatization of Prisons In Israel: Gains And Risks, 39 Israel Law Review 81 (2006)); it will probably spur a new round of debates not just in Israel but in other jurisdictions facing the same question.

According to another news item, “prison privatization first came up for discussion [in Israel] in the 90’s, when prisons were so overcrowded and badly maintained that they seemed unfit for habitation. The following years saw no improvement. In 2005, the Israel Prison Service (IPS) reported that because of overcrowding, conditions were among the worst in developed countries, with up to eight prisoners in a cell and with many having to sleep on the floor. As of March 2008, there were 22,788 inmates, including 9,068 security prisoners. The average space allotted to a prisoner has dropped in recent years from 3.4 square meters to 2.9. By comparison, the figure in Europe is 4.5 square meters. … According to the Ministry of Public Security (MOPS), Israel [would be] following the “British model,” where the “entrepreneur constructs and operates all systems, including bearing responsibility for the fulfillment of prisoners’ rights.” The state [would retain] supervision and control by “placing in every privately-run facility a comptroller or team of comptrollers who alone exercise the authority to judge and punish prisoners.” (The “US model” goes further, giving private companies the power to judge and punish, while the “French model” is more cautious, keeping security and prison management in state hands.) MOPS [said] that the state [would] retain sole responsibility for classifying and allocating prisoners to the private facility, plus punishment and sentencing.”

In the United States, the issue was brought to the fore again when Arizona initiated an effort to put its entire prison system under private control (Jennifer Steinhauer, Arizona May Put State Prisons in Private Hands, The New York Times, October 24, 2009). “[I]n a first in the criminal justice world, the state’s death row inmates could become the responsibility of a private company.” According to the same article, “[t]he privatization move has raised questions – including among some people who work for private prison companies – about the private sector’s ability to handle the state’s most hardened criminals. While executions would still be performed by the state, officials said, the Department of Corrections would relinquish all other day-to-day operations to the private operator and pay a per-diem fee for each prisoner.”

The privatization of state prisons in the U.S. is part of an effort to balance budgets in view of dwindling state resources. The Israeli Supreme Court took a different path when it reviewed the privatization amendment whose rationale was likewise cutting costs. As President Beinisch wrote, while the High Court usually does not interfere in economic policies formulated by the government and Knesset, it takes a different approach in respect to legislation that undermines the most fundamental constitutional rights.