Report: Israel's Eshel Prison Breaking the Law by Isolating Inmates

Chief public defender, says the situation 'requires immediate action by all the parties concerned.'

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Dozens of prisoners are essentially being held in isolation in Eshel Prison in clear violation of the law, the Public Defender’s Office concluded after visiting the prison in December 2012.

By law, holding prisoners in isolation is permissible only for certain purposes, such as national security, protecting the prisoner from others or protecting other prisoners from him. It is explicitly defined as a last resort, permitted only if the said purpose can be achieved no other way. And if prisoners are held in isolation for more than a certain length of time - six months in a single cell or 12 months in a double - this must be approved by a court.

But at Eshel Prison, near Be’er Sheva, the two maximum-security wings are essentially isolation wings in every respect, the Public Defender’s Office said in a report on its visit: Prisoners can’t wander about the wing, the flaps in their cell-door are locked except when food is passed through at mealtimes, and most prisoners are required to take their daily walks alone, even though group walks are supposed to be permitted in maximum-security wings. As a result, they rarely see another prisoner.

Yet the prison circumvents the rules on judicial supervision by not calling these wings isolation wings. Instead, it calls them “intermediate wings.”

Moreover, prisoners in these wings are deprived of the rehabilitation, education and employment options available to other prisoners, and physical conditions in the cells are terrible, the report said. Cells are tiny (‏1.8 by 3 meters‏), with toilets behind a curtain; there are windows, but a wall built right outside them blocks light and air; the stench is terrible; and some cells were moldy or had rats.

The decision that most prisoners should take their daily walks alone rather than in groups also means that each prisoner is able to spend less time outside.

And while the prisoners are allowed family visits, these are minimal: one half-hour visit per month from a first-degree relative.

The public defenders weren’t allowed to see the social worker who visits the prisoners every day, but the prisoners themselves made it clear that they were suffering emotionally from the situation. “They’re burying me,” said one. “They’ve drawn an ‘X’ over me.” He added that an Israel Prison Service committee had actually approved him for rehabilitation and transfer to another wing, but it had never happened.

Another prisoner, who was moved to the maximum-security wing from the isolation wing, said the only difference was that he is now allowed phone calls.

The report said many prisoners are held for months in these conditions, and it found 12 who had endured them for more than a year. One prisoner even said he had been there for five years − and though he did have a roommate, they were crammed into a single-person cell, making living conditions intolerably crowded.

Dr. Yoav Sapir, the chief public defender, said the situation “requires immediate action by all the parties concerned.”

The Prison Service said the maximum-security wing “is meant for prisoners who, because of their negative behavior or the anticipated danger to them or from them, are held in this wing and aren’t integrated into the various prison activities outside the wing. Petitions filed in court in the past that raised similar claims to those raised in the public defender’s report have been rejected in the past.”

Nevertheless, it added, even before the report was published, the Prison Service had drawn up new rules for conditions in maximum-security wings, and these are just now starting to be implemented.

Israeli guards at a prison.Credit: AP

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