Illegal workers in Israel prisons - Nir Kafri - August 2011
Illegal workers being held in the Maasiyahu Prison. Photo by Nir Kafri
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Inmates were cuffed hand and foot as a punishment, sometimes for months on end, while prisoners considered suicidal remained in restraints for long periods without access to proper medical care, according to a recent report on conditions in Israeli prisons in 2009 and 2010.

The report, issued by the Justice Ministry's Public Defender's Office, reveals widespread overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions and excessive punitive measures in most facilities.

In the Sharon Prison, for example, the agency found a policy of restraining suicidal inmates to their beds in order to punish them rather than in order to protect them.

One prisoner was found to have been kept in bed with arm and leg restraints for several hours, during which time he was unable to eat, smoke, cover himself with a blanket or go to the toilet. The restraints were so tight they left red marks on the prisoner's wrists.

In Tsalmon Prison representatives of the Public Defender's Office observed a prisoner kept in bed with arm and leg restraints in a stench-filled cell with cockroaches crawling on the walls. The prisoner, who is being treated with psychiatric drugs, told PDO officials he had been held for a number of months in this way. He said that in order to use the toilet he had to shout for a guard stationed some distance away, at the entrance to the wing.

PDO officials observed an inmate at Hadarim Detention Center who had been cuffed to his bed 24 hours a day for five and a half months, and afterward remained in restraints at night, for 13 hours a day, for an additional period of about six months.

The PDO reported numerous complaints by inmates in Dekel Prison of what they said was a frequent form of punishment in which prisoners are placed in the "cage." This is an outside area of about two meters by two meters, with exposed sides and a makeshift roof, located near the rooms where prisoners meet with their lawyers.

While the prison warden claimed the "cage" was where prisoners waited for their attorneys, inmates said guards put them there for on-the-spot punishment, without a formal process. According to prisoners, the punishment sometimes lasts the entire day, in any weather. The "cage" contains only a small metal bench, with no toilet or access to drinking water, and can be intolerably hot or cold, according to the season.

The report detailed conditions of extreme overcrowding. In one wing of Dekel Prison, for example, each prisoner has about 2.2 square meters of living space. In a different wing the amount of space is just 1.3 square meters per prisoner, not including the beds, toilets and cabinets.

At Carmel Prison, the representatives of the Public Defenders Office found 10 inmates living in some of the 18-square-meter cells, giving each one just 1.8 square meters. The average amount of living space for each inmate in Eshel Prison was about 2.4 square meters.

In a response, the Israel Prison Service said that prisoners are held in restraints, by order of the agency, when this is judged necessary to protect them or others from injury.

The Israel Prison Service tries to strike a balance among the desire to prevent inmates from harming themselves, the need to maintain security and the obligation to uphold the dignity and rights of the prisoner, the statement said.

The prison service said that it does not impose collective punishment.

With regard to the harsh physical conditions in some of the facilities, the statement noted that in 2008 the agency began implementing a comprehensive plan to improve inmates' living conditions, within the limited means at its disposal. The program includes the renovation of some prison wings, while in some cases wings deemed uninhabitable are being replaced by new facilities.