Cabinet approves release of 500 prisoners to house arrest to reduce virus threat

Cabinet approves release of 500 prisoners to house arrest to reduce virus threat

Decision only applies to Israeli residents near end of terms, not those serving time for security or sexual-related offenses; Defense Ministry set to open 20 more quarantine hotels

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

An ambulance exits the Ayalon Prison in Ramle. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
An ambulance exits the Ayalon Prison in Ramle. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The cabinet approved a measure on Friday to release some 500 inmates to house arrest for the final month of their terms to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in jails, the Israel Prisons Service announced.

The proposal had been greenlighted last week by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan based on the recommendation of IPS chief Asher Vaknin.

The measure applies only to Israeli residents serving time for criminal activities, and not for security or terror inmates, sex offenders or perpetrators of severe violence. They have to have been serving less than four-year sentences and due for release in less than 30 days, the IPS clarified.

Prisoners who fit those criteria will begin being released on Sunday in coordination with the Israel Police, IPS added in a statement.

Illustrative: Prisoners leave Maasiyahu Prison in Ramle on December 20, 2018, after the state released 970 prisoners from prisons as part of a High Court of Justice decision. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

On March 17, Israel’s prisons were shut off from the outside world with prisoners not able to receive visits, meet with their attorneys or go on furloughs, according to the IPS.

The IPS was stocking up on food, hygiene and disinfectant products, and other essential products. The IPS said that it expected the lockdown to last for what it defined as an “extended period.”

So far, there have been no reported cases of coronavirus in Israel’s prisons. However, on March 12 the IPS said it was isolating 119 detainees and 25 staff at the Russian Compound detention center in Jerusalem after an officer reported that she had been in contact with a person infected with coronavirus.

The IPS operates 33 prison facilities throughout the country with around 20,000 prisoners and 9,000 staff.

Concerns have been expressed in several countries that the virus could spread rapidly within a closed prison environment. Iran released some 85,000 prisoners last week as the number of infections and deaths in the country continued to spiral.

Inmates stage a protest against new rules to cope with the coronavirus emergency, including the suspension of relatives’ visits, on the roof of the San Vittore prison in Milan, Italy, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Brazil and Italy have both seen prison riots after officials in those countries banned furloughs due to fears prisoners could bring the coronavirus into prisons on their return.

Four more Israelis died of the coronavirus on Friday, bringing the country’s death toll to 12, as the number of infections nationwide climbed to 3,035. Of them, 49 are in serious condition and 60 are in moderate condition.

Israel has been placed under lockdown to stem the virus, with Israelis permitted to leave their homes only for essential reasons, such as buying food and medicine or seeking medical care.

Also Friday, the Defense Ministry issued a call for additional hotels to be reserved for quarantining Israelis returning to the country for the Passover holiday, which starts on April 7. So far, hotels in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have been operating as isolation wards for those who have returned from abroad or those diagnosed with the coronavirus, but are not showing symptoms.

The Dan Hotel in Jerusalem that was converted to receive coronavirus patients, March 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Defense Ministry called for 20 more hotels to be enlisted in the effort, saying that 200 rooms would be needed to isolate Passover returnees.

Since earlier this month, anyone returning from abroad must enter quarantine for 14 days. Most have done so at home, but Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has called for housing them in hotels so that they don’t infect their family members.

Separately, the Health Ministry reached out to Israel Medical Association chair Prof. Zion Hagai in an effort to recruit doctors and nurses from private practices to come staff Israeli hospitals struggling to keep up with the outbreak.

According to Health Ministry figures released Thursday, 2,130 hospital staff were currently in home isolation in addition to 178 Magen David Adom emergency service employees.

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