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7 April 2020

PHRI: The spread of coronavirus in prisons is a danger we should all care about

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The corona pandemic is posing immense challenges to public health care systems the world over. The health care system within the Israel Prison Service (IPS), is further tested given that prisons are high risk environments for the quick spread of contagious diseases due to severe overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions and insufficient ventilation, coupled with a large proportion of inmates who are elderly or suffer from chronic conditions. The current crisis brings to light, once more, the grave implications of the IPS’ having sole responsibility for prisoners’ health care services and of the separation of these services from the civilian health care system.  

In response to the crisis and with a view to reducing the number of people entering prisons and hold off infection among the inmate population, the government issued emergency directives suspending meetings with counsel and family visits in prisons and restricting criteria for filing prisoners’ petitions. These measures have compounded the intense stress, anxiety and uncertainty experienced by inmates as a result of the pandemic.

With this in the background, the IPS currently operates under a shroud of secrecy that is inappropriate for a health care system and has trouble securing adequate specialized medicine and psychosocial care for inmates. The IPS also has no contingency plan for a scenario in which medical staff contract the virus and have to isolate. The IPS cannot and should not shoulder the responsibility to meet these challenges on its own, which is why we contacted the Ministry of Health several times, asking it to ramp up its involvement in health care within the prison system and provide the IPS with clear guidelines.

Public information put out by the IPS refers to several steps it has taken, including sealing off prisons as hermetically as possible, preparing separate quarters for inmates who fall ill, distributing items to help maintain hygiene and educating prisoners. At the same time, no reference was made to how the IPS was preparing for other health care challenges including continued medical services that are unrelated to coronavirus, psychosocial care and support for inmates during the crisis, isolation conditions and measures to protect prisoners who belong to risk profiles.

Impaired specialized medicine services
A week ago, we filed an urgent petition to the High Court of Justice demanding it instruct the IPS to publicize its directives on specialized medicine and psychosocial care for inmates during the crisis, and measures taken to prevent infection within the prison system, particularly among inmates who meet risk profiles. The petition was filed after inmates contacted us with complaints about the cancellation of an urgent surgery and specialist appointments inside the prison, among others. The IPS said it was using alternatives such as medical consults via video conferencing, but these were also to be used only in some cases.

Severe impairment of psychosocial care for prisoners
As part of the efforts to prevent infection, the IPS has reduced the number of staff in its facilities and announced the suspension of prison treatment, rehabilitation and education programs, some of which would continue in a reduced format and in small groups.  Psychiatric services were reduced to first aid only. The absence of adequate responses to inmates’ mental health in this time of anxiety, coupled with a significant reduction of outlets such as working and studying may result in dangerous situations. The state’s response to the petition did include some guidelines, but these were still insufficient. Unfortunately, the HCJ found that the state’s response and further clarifications provided during the hearing were satisfactory and ruled that the petition had been exhausted and should be dismissed.

Overcrowding in prisons puts inmates in danger
Together with five other human rights organizations, we contacted the minister of public security, the attorney general and the Pardon Department at the Ministry of Justice, urging for measures to reduce prison populations. The Israeli Bar Association filed a petition on the same issue.

Severe overcrowding in prisons makes it impossible to maintain a two-meter distance between people, as recommended by the Ministry of Health. The decision made by the government to send 500 prisoners who are near the end of their sentence on vacation, of whom 230 have been released, is an important step, but not enough to enable adherence to the Ministry of Health guidelines. The state can take other measures, such as a reduction of prison capacity standards, administrative release of prisoners nearing the end of their sentence, increased use of arrest alternatives, release of asylum seekers and migrant workers.

This morning, in a press briefing, the acting IPS commissioner said the possibility of temporarily releasing sick and elderly prisoners over fear of infection was under consideration.

Lack of telephone access for security prisoners
We joined an urgent petition filed by HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual and other human rights organizations demanding Palestinian security prisoners be given the opportunity to speak to relatives on the phone, particularly minors. The denial of family visits causes grave harm to the entire inmate population. However, the harm to security prisoners is deeper as they are denied access to telephones, leaving them with absolutely no contact with the outside world. These restrictions, along with restrictions on meetings with counsel, may also lead to violations of their various rights, including the right to health, as they are denied the ability to complain and draw attention to improper conduct in prison.

The crisis and the danger of mass infection in prisons exemplify how, despite the walls and bars, prisoners are still part of society. As infection spreads through Israel, we are preparing to continue to advocate for the health of prisoners.

To healthier days,

Anat Litvin,
Director of the Prisoners and Detainees Department at Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI).

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