Health Ministry raises flag over suspected virus spread in prisons
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Health Ministry raises flag over suspected virus spread in prisons

Ministry deputy director urges Interior Ministry to firm up social distancing and hygiene after prisoners and jailers infected by new inmates, court visits

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prison guards wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, seen as they transport a prisoner suspected of having the coronavirus at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Prison guards wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, seen as they transport a prisoner suspected of having the coronavirus at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Health Ministry has warned that the coronavirus may be spreading rapidly among prisoners in detention facilities, urging stronger adherence to hygiene rules and social distancing.

Unlike many other countries, prisons in Israel have thus far been mostly insulated from the pandemic, with only a handful of confirmed cases among inmates and guards, but a top health official warned Monday of signs that morbidity within the prison system may be on the rise.

“Unfortunately, in recent days we have witnessed reports of illness, confirmed patients and exposures at the Israel Prison Service that require everyone involved to implement what the guidelines say,” Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto wrote to Interior Ministry director general Moshe Edri Monday, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Since the virus outbreak first began earlier this year, 19 guards and five prisoners have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease cause by the virus, a Prison Service spokesman told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The spokesman said all confirmed cases were traceable to new inmates entering the system or those being transported to court for hearings.

The letter from Grotto urged care in separating inmates from new prisoners, as well as better adherence to protective measures and hygiene, including proper ventilation of closed rooms.

Grotto also reminded that care must taken during attorney visits and during trips to court hearings.

Itamar Grotto, deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus, May 29, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Grotto told Edri that he has approved preparation for 2,600 virus tests to be carried out each week in prisons.

The IPS had asked Grotto to send a warning about the rising infections in prisons to all authorities involved in the handling of prisoners, such as the justice and interior ministries, as well as the courts administration, the spokesperson said.

Four prisoners at the Abu Kabir Detention Center in Tel Aviv, a security prisoner in Gilboa prison, and six guards at Jerusalem’s Russian Compound jailhouse have all recently tested positive for the virus, Kan reported. As a result, these jails have not been receiving new inmates.

On March 17, Israel’s prisons were shut off from the outside world — with inmates not be able to receive visits, meet with their attorneys or go on furloughs — as part of the government’s effort to prevent the pandemic from entering the penal system.

Under current restrictions, only those who have already made previous court appearances are permitted to continue attending hearings while new suspects are required to use teleconferencing instead, the spokesman said. Attorney visits are allowed.

Israel has been experiencing a surging return of virus infections after it lifted wide lockdown measures begun in mid-March that tamped down an initial outbreak.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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