Israel's Prisons Hold Thousands of Inmates in Solitary Confinement, Some for Years

Prison service figures show that thousands, including minors, are isolated despite consensus on negative health impacts

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A solitary confinement cell in Ayalon prison.
A solitary confinement cell in Ayalon prison. Credit: Moti Milrod

The Israel Prison Service holds thousands of inamtes in isolation, including minors, for months and even years, according to figures obtained following a freedom of information request filed by the NGO Physicians for Human Rights.

According to figures provided by the prison service, in the first ten months of 2021, 1,587 inmates, among them 66 minors, had been held in complete solitary confinement. In that same year, by the end of August, another 1,134 prisoners, 53 of whom were minors, were held in “individual seclusion,” or “two-person seclusion.”

In prison service terminology, “solitary confinement” refers to situations where an inmate is confined alone for a period that is not to exceed 14 consecutive days. “Seclusion” is defined as a practice used when there is a danger to the prisoner, the security of the facility, state security or to prevent drug smuggling. However, Physicians for Human Rights claims that “seclusion” is just another term for solitary confinement and that it has the same negative impact on prisoners, regardless of the varying terminology.

The figures provided by the prison service also indicate how long prisoners were held in “seclusion.” Of the 1,134 prisoners, 63 inmates were held for more than two months; 17 were held for a period of more than six months; 19 prisoners were held for a period between one and three years, and 18 prisoners were held in seclusion for over three years.

Isolation is an extreme step, which courts have ruled should be used only in rare instances. There are three circumstances that warrant isolating a prisoner: While a prisoner is under interrogation, as punishment for disciplinary infractions, and solitary confinement in the form of “seclusion” when the prison service or another agency requires it.

The data provided by the prison service did not indicate when prisoners were held alone in seclusion, and when they were secluded with one other prisoner. As a rule, the prison service and courts prefer that inmates be secluded with a cellmate, and not alone. Generally, inmates are secluded without a cellmate only when explicitly requested by the prison service, the Shin Bet security service or the police, because the prisoner poses a danger to others or when the inmate requests it out of fear for their own safety.

The preliminary decision to place a prisoner in isolation for a period of up to six months is made by either the prison commander or the deputy district commander. A further period of seclusion must be approved by a special committee whose members include police officers, social workers, prison service personnel and medical personnel. The decision then requires the approval of a judge. Individual seclusion may be extended by six month periods, and two-person seclusion may be extended once a year.

A prisoner in Maasiyahu prison, in Ramle, in 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Seclusion” goes beyond occupying a cell alone (or with one other inmate). Secluded prisoners are hermetically separated from the prison’s general population, including yard time, meals and any other activities in the facility. The wings used for seclusion are often completely separated from the rest of the inmates.

“The prison service is holding hundreds of inmates in solitary conditions, with full knowledge of the destructive impact it can have on their health,” says Anat Litvin, who oversees the department for incarcerated persons within Physicians for Human Rights.

In 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that incarcerated persons, “are not stripped of their human rights, and they do not lose the liberties accorded to every human being by virtue of their status as such, unless this is required to fulfill the purpose of the incarceration. The prison walls are not a ‘normative black hole,’ within which there are no human rights or protections.” Nevertheless, the figures show that the prison service still makes extensive use of solitary confinement and seclusion.

The figures show that 2021 was not unusual in terms of solitary confinement. In 2020, 1,979 inmates were held in solitary confinement, among them 88 minors, and 2,015 inmates, 64 of whom were minors, were held in seclusion. The figures were only slightly lower in 2019.

“There is a consensus among Israeli health care professionals of the severe impact of solitary confinement, and in recent years the practice has come under serious scrutiny, which has significantly reduced its use in psychiatric facilities,” Litvin says. “Regrettably, the prison service is, once again, ignoring the accepted norms determined by Israel’s health care system and making its own rules, harming the health of inmates. The logic for doing so is beyond our understanding.”

A closer look at the data reveals that in 2021, 0f the 1,113 criminal offenders in seclusion, 554 were non-Jewish men and 530 were Jewish men. Of the minors held in seclusion, 34 were Jewish and 13 were non-Jewish. Two women were held in seclusion, both of them Jewish.

Physicians for Human Rights expressed frustration regarding the prison service’s response to its freedom of information request. “Although the prison service said it had manually reviewed over 1,100 inmate files in its response to the request, it could not provide data as to the number of inmates held in solitary confinement (individual seclusion),” Litvin said. “They also could not determine who or how many among them suffer from psychiatric illnesses and are under psychiatric care, which would place them among one of the at-risk groups whose solitary confinement is banned by the United Nations,” Litvin said.

Consequently, the organization concluded that “In the best case, the prison service is trying to prevent the requested information from emerging and in the worst case, it is not conducting proper follow-up for prisoners held in solitary conditions, and knowingly putting their health at risk.”

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