Locked down in lockdown: Harsh restrictions keep COVID-19 out of Israel prisons

Despite success in preventing outbreak, activists criticize prison service for severity of lockdown and alleged initial missteps in providing soap and protective masks

Prisoners in Rimonim maximum security prison wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the prison population. (Courtesy Israel Prison Service)
Prisoners in Rimonim maximum security prison wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the prison population. (Courtesy Israel Prison Service)

Unlike many other countries, Israel has been remarkably successful in preventing an outbreak of COVID-19 in its prison system, but the strict limitations that the Israel Prisons Service has put in place have been criticized by some human rights advocates and convicts’ families as excessive.

“Beyond the unbearable day-to-day suffering we go through, I as a wife and my children as children, the coronavirus disease came and added to our suffering,” complained Yocheved, whose husband is currently riding out the COVID-19 pandemic incarcerated in an Israeli prison.

Yocheved, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is one of thousands of family members of Israeli convicts who have not seen their loved ones since the IPS placed its nearly 14,000 prisoners and 9,000 staff, spread across more than 30 correctional facilities, on lockdown earlier this year.

“The little that the jail authorities would have allowed us to have, which was a visit once every two weeks for 28 minutes exactly,” was canceled after the virus came to Israel, Yocheved told The Times of Israel.

Prisoners in a prison workshop at Rimonim maximum security prison. (Courtesy Israel Prison Service)

“And in my opinion it is not at all justified.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, governments around the world have scrambled to protect their convict populations in the face of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, which has killed at least half a million people.

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

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

According to the World Health Organization, prisoners generally suffer from worse health than the general population and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that many countries’ detention facilities are overcrowded and “physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.”

Families of prisoners and activists protest against the restrictions of the Israel Prisons Service following the spread of the coronavirus, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

These claims seem to be borne out by recent data from the Justice Project Pakistan, a prisoners’ advocacy group based in Lahore, which claims that more than 83,607 prisoners in 82 countries have tested positive for COVID-19, with more than 1,379 deaths.

More than 584 of these were in the United States, where there have been nearly 49,000 coronavirus cases in prisons, according to journalism nonprofit the Marshall Project.

Learning from others

“The goal, our main purpose from the get-go, was to prevent the virus from spreading and getting inside our prisons,” Col. Regev Daharuge, head of the IPS Inmate Department, told The Times of Israel.

Col. Regev Daharuge, head of the Israel Prison Service’s Inmate Department. (Courtesy)

He said that in early March, as virus cases began to mount in Israel, one of the IPS’s first moves was to consult with colleagues in England, Italy and the United States to learn how they were coping with the situation.

“We tried to learn because everyone was dealing with this for the first time and no one knew really how to cope with it,” he said.

“I think we implemented a lot of what we learned from them. And we made assumptions that turned out to be pretty good in trying to minimize the connection between the outside and the inside of the prisons.”

Starting 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.

Interrogations were conducted inside of prisons rather than at police stations, judicial hearings were held over teleconference and family visits were restricted to five-minute Zoom calls.

Guards, who would usually pull 24-hour shifts followed by two days off, were suddenly doing one week on, two weeks off, during which time they monitored themselves for coronavirus symptoms. New inmates would be held in quarantine for two weeks before being allowed to mix with the general prison population.

Guards took the temperature of people entering their facilities and as of mid-June, some 3,000 coronavirus tests had been administered to inmates and guards, an IPS spokesperson told The Times of Israel.

Some 500 prisoners within 30 days of the end of their sentences were approved for early release to house arrest to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in jails.

This approach was necessary “because we knew there will be no social distancing inside,” Daharuge explained. And while prisoners ate in their cells and congregating was discouraged, “if you think that social distancing in a [prison] wing is possible, you don’t know prison. There’s no way that we can enforce it.”

Despite that, he said, prisoners each had three square meters of space, in accordance with the law, and were provided with masks and soap.

According to a report by the Public Defense Office published last year, prisoners were often kept in facilities “unfit for human residence” and in some cases, the space for each prisoner was less than the court-mandated minimum of three square meters per inmate — sometimes as low as half that.

Guards at Rimonim maximum security prison. (Courtesy Israel Prison Service)

The IPS said last year that these issues had been “dealt with in all [its] facilities.”

“The inmates understand and know we have the same goal and our purpose is to keep them healthy, and they are collaborating really well during this period. This week I visited Maasiyahu Prison and went through the wings and saw inmates and everyone wearing masks,” Daharuge said.

Even with all of these precautions, however, several, apparently isolated, incidents of COVID-19 had been recorded among prison staff, with an IPS spokesperson recalling seven such cases.

Quarantine wards

In late April, a 21-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank who was arrested by Israel and brought to a Jerusalem jail was confirmed to have the coronavirus and was transferred to a quarantined ward. More recently, on June 23, the IPS announced that a detainee had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and was immediately transferred to an isolation cell.

However, these were rare examples and the disease did not spread within the system itself, a fact about which Daharuge seemed proud.

“I think the things we did proved themselves,” he said.

However, others were less sanguine about how the IPS handled the pandemic.

“My children and I did not see their father for more than four months,” said Yocheved. “The government has opened schools, malls, shopping centers and wedding halls and restaurants but we still cannot visit the prisoners. My four-year old boy cries and cries every day to see his father and I don’t know what to tell him. I sit and cry with him.”

A guard and a prisoner at Rimonim maximum security prison. (Courtesy Israel Prison Service)

And while family visits are slowly being reintroduced, limits on the number of participants mean that prisoners with large families have to choose which children see their fathers.

“They say that the rules are there so there should not be crowded — so why can’t they add more visiting days,” she asked.

Another woman whose husband is currently serving a prison sentence and who also asked to remain anonymous said that her spouse used to receive regular furloughs but hasn’t been able to see his children or grandchildren for months.

“I think the coronavirus made the experience of prison even worse for our family. It was unpleasant until now but now it’s impossible. Jail is one thing but to take away people’s elemental rights is something else completely.”

“You have to understand that visits and furloughs was the only reason they had to get up in the morning,” she told The Times of Israel.

“Since they closed up they don’t have that and they have lost their hope. Violence was much higher with many more incidents of hitting and fighting between the prisoners. There’s nothing to lose; visits are what the guards hold in their hand [as leverage] if the prisoners don’t behave properly.”

In April, Israeli news site Walla reported that around 50 prisoners at Ayalon prison had returned meals uneaten to protest a cigarette shortage and the lack of family visits, and that an unnamed IPS official had stated that there had been a rise in prisoner-on-prisoner violence since the beginning of the pandemic.

Around the same time, one prisoner told the Ynet news site that the guards, who had to do longer shifts, “get nervous after two or three days and take the anger out of us.”

During this period it has been difficult to send supplies to prisoners and there were shortages at prison canteens, said Mindi Bookspan, an activist who runs Dror La’mishpacha, an organization that supports the families of convicts.

Mindi Bookspan, the head of Dror La’mishpacha, an organization that supports the families of convicts. (Facebook)

“So the prisoners were very nervous and quarreled. There were also many fights around the phones,” she said.

However, when asked about such reports, a spokesperson for the IPS told The Times of Israel that she was unaware of any such increase and that she believed that “the prisoners understand that we are doing what we can in order to keep them healthy and to keep the virus out, so mostly they cooperate even though it’s not always easy.”

No gloves, masks or disinfectants

According to the IPS, at the beginning of crisis the prison system engaged in “a massive effort” to obtain supplies, ordering tens of thousands of cases of disinfectants, soaps and medications.

However, Bookspan said that such supplies were initially hard to come by.

“They did not provide detergents and disinfectants at all, no alcohol, no gloves or masks, and no basic disinfectants. In May, each prisoner was given a one-time multi-use mask,” she said.

The IPS said that eventually, each prisoner was provided with two washable fabric masks that could be reused indefinitely.

In early April, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a joint appeal with Physicians for Human Rights to the IPS over what it described as a “lack of cleaning and disinfectant supplied in prisons.”

Reut Shaer of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. (Courtesy)

“We were told they would get a bar of soap every few days like in regular times but in a time of pandemic everybody is constantly washing hands so soap would run out very quickly and they wouldn’t get additional supplies,” said Reut Shaer, the manager of ACRI’s public hotline.

“They complained they didn’t have anything stronger to disinfect with. After we turned to IPS and complained about this we heard they got Alcogel but it was not in sufficient quantity and ran out out quickly.”

The Times of Israel understands that the the IPS provided Alcogel at guard stations rather than distribute it to individual inmates because of concerns that bottles could be used as improvised firebombs.

Asked about the IPS response to compared to penal systems abroad, Shaer said that it’s methods “proved to be pretty effective” at preserving inmate health.

However, she said, “it did come to some extent at the expense of the freedoms and rights of the prisoners, who were isolated even further than they [usually] are.”

But Daharuge believes that if the IPS hadn’t taken the steps it had, things could have been a lot worse.

The IPS is “doing everything possible” to prevent an outbreak,” he said. “I don’t know what could have happened if we didn’t do the things that we planned.”

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