COVID Cases Peak in Israeli Prisons as Minister Refuses to Vaccinate Inmates

Prisoners complain that in addition to a lack of vaccines, they aren’t receiving basic medical treatment and wardens aren’t taking reasonable precautions

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Prison ward seen walking the halls of Neveh Tirza prison in Israel.
Prison ward seen walking the halls of Neveh Tirza prison in Israel.Credit: Limor Avira
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

More than 150 prisoners have contracted coronavirus in several different jails over the last few days – the biggest outbreak among prisoners since the pandemic broke out.

Israel’s Prison Service is preparing to transfer dozens of inmates to Saharonim Prison, where several cellblocks have been turned into coronavirus wards.

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Around 30 Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners in Ramon Prison have tested positive for COVID-19, apparently after catching it from wardens. One has been hospitalized.

Dozens of Palestinian prisoners who fell sick at Ketziot Prison were also transferred to Ramon, where they were put in an isolation block upon arrival. The prison has been put under lockdown following the outbreak.

Neveh Tirza, the women’s prison, was also closed for 48 hours after three prisoners tested positive. All prisoners and wardens were then tested for coronavirus, but the results haven’t come back yet.

Ohalei Keidar Prison in Be’er Sheva has been closed due to an outbreak as well. In addition to the prisoners, 160 wardens and other staffers are infected with COVID-19.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana recently refused to allow prisoners aged 60 and above to be vaccinated, in defiance of Health Ministry orders. But due to pressure from the public and the High Court of Justice, Ohana began negotiating with Health Ministry officials this week to obtain thousands of doses to vaccinate prisoners and wardens.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana speaks in Nazareth, January 4, 2021.Credit: Gil Eliahu

To date, around 4,000 of the 9,500 wardens have been vaccinated, and though arrangements haven’t been finalized, thousands of additional doses are expected in the next few days. These will be used first to vaccinate the remaining wardens and then to vaccinate any prisoners who would be eligible if they weren’t in prison – mainly older people and those with preexisting conditions.

Meanwhile, the prisoners complain that in addition to a lack of vaccines, they aren’t receiving basic medical treatment and the wardens aren’t taking reasonable precautions.

“Yes, we committed crimes and we’re paying the price for those crimes, but does that mean they have to leave me to die?” said one prisoner over 60 has COVID-19, as have several of his fellow inmates. “It’s true we’re prisoners, but we’re not animals. We don’t deserve to die.

“We’re in danger of dying every day,” he continued. “One prisoner is enough to infect the whole prison. I’m not a healthy man; nobody here is healthy. Ohana is simply sending us to die.”

Another prisoner said the infections most likely originated with the wardens, who come and go from outside. “The wardens circulate among us without masks, and that’s it,” he said. “Living conditions are terrible. It’s crowded. This is a death trap.”

People close to the Hamas prisoners accused the Prison Service of denying them disinfectants that used to be sold in the canteen. “Ohana is sentencing us to death,” one said.

“Every day that passes endangers us,” added a 58-year-old prisoner serving a sentence for fraud. “Haven’t we been punished enough?”

The Prison Service said its staff is working very hard to keep the virus from spreading, and a lot of resources have been invested in that effort, including setting up special wards for patients and people in quarantine. The wardens observe stringent mask-wearing and disinfection protocols, it added.

“All outbreaks within the prisons are dealt with immediately and are under full control, due to the Prison Service’s determined, uncompromising handling of the virus throughout the past year,” the statement concluded.

On Thursday, President Reuven Rivlin urged the Health Ministry to vaccinate the prisoners as soon as possible. “Denying lifesaving medical treatment to people in prison – whether because of a sentence imposed by a court or because they are being held prior to a verdict – doesn’t accord with our values, the values of the Jewish and democratic state,” he said.

Last week, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ruled that Ohana had no authority to deny the prisoners vaccines, but Ohana refused to obey his ruling. The High Court is soon slated to hear an urgent petition against Ohana’s decision filed by several human rights organizations, prisoners and the Israel Bar Association.

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