Penal Center for Mental Health

PENAL Center for Mental Health


            The Center for Mental Health recently established in the Ayalon Prison complex represents a real change in approach by the National Prison Service at a time when prison design is generally based on security and maintenance considerations. The design by Poreh- Yaacovi Architects demonstrates a fresh and humane interpretation of the programmes archaic terminology such as "control", "attitude towards prisoners" and "progress". After only a three-month trial period, it is difficult to determine to what extent the facility is actually serving its purpose. However, this building’s concept and design will serve as a precedent for similar prison facilities and is thus definitely worthy of mention.


            During our visit to the first penal center for mental health  in Israel, a prison warden made three comments: "The design lacks flexibility, and limits any future change in the building’s designation; too much emphasis has been placed on ensuring the prisoner’s privacy causing (among other problems) difficulty in establishing traditional eye contact with the cells doors; and "over-advanced" technology prevents the efficient utilization of the available manpower."


            Although these comments should be taken into consideration in any future planning (as should all incompatibility between planning intentions and actual use), one should bear in mind that this prison is based on a specific and unusual designation. According to the architects, it is the dual purpose facility which prevents any major flexibility. While it is administrated by the Prison Service for security purposes, the Ministry of Health psychiatric department manages it. Morover, the T-shape allows central overall control of the hallways, whereas the entrance niches enable the guard on his rounds to observe each and every cell, in the absence of blind spots. Electronic surveillance equipment used as a supplement is approved by the prison psychiatrist who prefers "to see people rather than doors".


            Perhaps it would be more useful to examine the warden’s concerns regarding the building’s limitations in terms of flexibility for future needs. While the facility was designed to function as a center for mental health, in reality it is currently providing housing for a majority of prisoners defined as ‘needing surveillance’. As a result, treatment focuses on protecting prisoners from self-inflicted harm, and use of the term "mental health" is misleading. Currently, only 30 of the 200 occupants of the Center are categorized as mentally ill; the rest are under threat from their surroundings for various reasons.


            In weighing any criticisms of the Center, it is important to note that the Prison Service intended the building to function as an independent prison, which would also house a hospital and a psychiatric ward. In reality, the facility offers mental health care to all the prisons in the country, in order to prevent unsupervised hospitalization of prisoners outside the prison. The question remains, should the method be materialized through conventional buildings catering to outdated needs, or should the planning function (based on futuristic vision) compel the system to progress in compliance with a contemporary outlook? There is no doubt the architects have invested every effort into building, on a very tight budget, a humane and proper building for its unique purpose, and there is no justification in criticizing them for the use of over-advanced technology. While any planner must also learn from and correct his mistakes, the system must also make every effort to improve its functionality in the name of progress.


            According to the Prison Service, prisons are not intended to cure the mentally ill nor, by definition, to rehabilitate prisoners. However, the number of confined prisoners suffering from mental illnesses surely equals the number of mentally ill in the outside world. There is no doubt that if the Prison Service were to conduct a thorough search they would easily fill those empty beds with prisoners in need of mental care, without wasting this unique building, with its expensive facilities, on other purposes.


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