The Mystery of Jail Suicides

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Prison conditions, like those criticized in the Israel Bar Association report publicized today, are not the only aspect of the country's jails that are under examination.

A report on suicides in prison is due to be released shortly by the State Comptroller's Office, which began its investigation after two high-profile prison suicides last year.

Entertainer Dudu Topaz, formerly known as Israel's king of comedy, hanged himself in his cell in August, 2009, after being accused of hiring thugs to assault media figures he blamed for keeping him off the air. And Assaf Goldring, who was accused of smothering his 3-year-old daughter to death, jumped to his own death in September, 2009, leaping head first from a three-meter prison fence.

Most of those who commit suicide in jail are detainees held before trial or prisoners who have no criminal record and have just begun serving their sentence.

Every year, approximately 38,000 people are imprisoned in Israel. The police and the Israel Prison Service are conducting their own separate investigations of unnatural deaths in prison, which come to an annual average of 13 over the past decade - a tiny fraction of the 22,000 prisoners incarcerated here. (There are an additional 2,000 prisoners performing community service and 1,000 under electronic surveillance. )

The average number of suicides has remained stable despite a rise in the number of prisoners who come under the responsibility of the prison service, according to data the prison service has submitted to the Knesset. That number increased by 12,000, including 7,400 security prisoners, after the prison service took over jails that had been controlled by the army or the police over the past decade.

The number of jails operated by the prison service has risen from 24 to 42.

The police investigation, which is being overseen by Yoav Segalovich, the head of the investigations and intelligence division, is focused on determining whether the cause of death is suicide, neglect or murder.

Suicide is considered the most prevalent of the three, and generally treated as the most reasonable cause of death.

Investigations of unnatural deaths in prison are of an inherently sensitive nature.

Murders automatically implicate either a fellow prisoner or a warden, and the motive is usually to take revenge or to silence a potential informant or witness. Neglect implicates the prison service for putting prisoners' lives at risk, and in suicide cases, the prison may be blamed for failing to do enough to keep the prisoner from taking his own life.

The prison service says it must strike a balance between the safety of individual prisoners, and their quality of life and right to privacy - and between the extent to which at-risk prisoners are monitored and the welfare of the rest of the prisoners, who may suffer from overly restrictive policies aimed at protecting the few.

Particularly sensitive cases involve prisoners who are incarcerated for classified reasons, such as those involving security matters, and whose deaths are not made public.

In such a case, the investigation aims to determine whether any government or other agency with access to the most restricted prison units had an interest in silencing the prisoner, and if so, whether the prisoner's death might be murder disguised as suicide. Such deaths also raise the question of whether the prison service is capable of preventing the violent death of well-known prisoners like the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Amir.



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