Attorneys Say Israel's New Prison Chief Obstructing Their Work With Inmates

'The Prison Service has declared war on lawyers' says aggrieved attorney.

Inmates at Rimonim Prison in central Israel (illustrative).
Moti Milrod

Attorneys representing prisoners claim that the new head of the Israel Prison Service is doing everything she can to infringe on prisoners’ rights and deny them adequate legal counsel, by obstructing the lawyers’ work in prisons.

Last Thursday, new Prison Service orders came into effect, making it more difficult for prisoners to meet their lawyers, as is their legal right. Attorneys who travel to prisons in the outlying areas of the country are forced to stop meetings with their clients for hours and sit in their car or at a nearby gas station until they are allowed to see them again.

“The Prison Service has declared war on lawyers,” says Attorney Shani Illouz, who was forced to stop a meeting last Wednesday and wait outside Hermon Prison in the Galilee for two hours until she was allowed in again.

“It’s a move that violates the right to receive and grant serious, professional legal counsel,” Illouz said. “It also infringes on lawyers’ freedom of occupation.”

According to the new regulations, a lawyer may meet his/her client between 8 and 9 A.M., but must then stop the meeting while the prisoners are being counted. A lawyer who hasn’t completed the meeting may return for another meeting with his/her client between 1 and 3 P.M., then leave again for the next prison count. They can then return until 4:45 P.M.

Previously, while the prison counts took place at the same time, lawyers did not have to cut short their meetings with clients.

The lawyers say Chief Commissioner Ofra Klinger has taken advantage of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s meeting with more than 30 lawyers to change the regulations. Olmert – currently in Ma’asiyahu Prison, Ramle – exploited the rules to have visitors’ meetings, and Klinger is using that to violate the rights of all the prisoners, they say.

Another new regulation stipulates that if a prisoner hasn’t got a court hearing scheduled, he may not see his lawyer without the Prison Service’s approval.

This presents a major problem for inmates, because many of their meetings with lawyers are for receiving advice about rehabilitation, treatment, vacations, as well as discussing their legal options. All these meetings are not necessarily part of scheduled court hearings.

The Prison Service says the new regulations are intended to level the field between rich and famous inmates and those who aren’t.

“Some prisoners have five or six lawyers, and sometimes many more, and we know they’re not getting legal advice but a visit,” one prison commander said. “Some prisoners, their friends, children, rabbis and lawyers sit here all day discussing life, while others don’t get to see their lawyer because there aren’t enough rooms and not enough wardens to watch them,” he added.

In the case of security detainees, things are much worse, said Attorney Abeer Baker. “Sometimes we wait for hours in the car or in prison, until they finish the count. When I can’t wait any longer, I have to go home. The Prison Service is trying to wear us down and take forever to bring a prisoner to the meeting. For example, in Rimonim [in the West Bank], just to get a prisoner’s signature on a document – a matter of five minutes – takes no less than two hours.”

Baker added that since Klinger entered office last November, she has been making things more difficult for lawyers. “She has restricted lawyers in many ways, adding requirements like coordination in advance, sending faxes to the prison to get in. It can take two weeks to see a client. The Prison Service doesn’t respond to requests, it’s inaccessible to lawyers. They still insist on using faxes for everything,” she said.

In many cases, a prisoner needs to submit a petition to the court, which is his only way to deal with the Prison Service’s arbitrary decisions that infringe on his rights. Many of these petitions are about taking furloughs. Prisoners often ask for special leave – for example, to attend the birth of a child or a close relative’s wedding or funeral. When the service refuses, he petitions the court.

Prisoners may also want to petition when they are denied a rehabilitation program, medical treatment or special nutrition due to illness. If the prisoner asks for the petition himself, rather than with a lawyer’s help, it could take several weeks before he receives the forms. In any event, he will have to be interviewed by the prison commander, which will cause tension between them.