Israeli Inmates 'Scared to Death' of Coronavirus Outbreak in Overcrowded, Squalid Prisons

Poor hygiene conditions and no protective gear for guards who come and go from the outside world make prisons a dangerous site for the coronavirus's spread

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Prisoners in Ayalon prison, May 2018.
Prisoners in Ayalon prison, May 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Israel’s prisons have always been something like the country’s neglected backyard – with their old buildings, major overcrowding, poor conditions and meager funding. Now, that neglect gives rise to fears that the prisons have become a dangerous powder keg for the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.

As the virus began spreading through Israel, the prisons service stopped all family and attorney visits to minimize contact between the prisoners and the outside world. However, the prison guards are still coming and going, and it seems like only a matter of time before the virus spreads cell to cell in these cramped quarters. While the Israel Prison Service is worried about the possibility, little is being done to prevent it. Although at least three prison guards have contracted the coronavirus, the other guards have yet to be tested.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70

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“It’s a really difficult situation, I’m scared for my life,” said an inmate in his 60s serving a five-year sentence for fraud at a prison in southern Israel. “We’re constantly terrified that it will strike here, and that’s it, we’ll all get sick. You can’t go anywhere,” he said. “They told us this week that the clinic has been closed by order of the district commander, and I’m a person with pre-existing conditions. People here are scared to death.”

According to him, the prison allows inmates who are sick and coughing to continue serving food, despite complaints from other inmates. Like all the other inmates who spoke with Haaretz, he was also afraid that guards would bring the virus in. “They end their shift and go out and who knows where they go… We complain, but no one listens. We’re at the end of the chain, society’s human garbage, so who cares about us?” He says he has been using shampoo to clean his cell because the prison store has run out of cleaning materials.

A meal served in Ayalon prison, May 16, 2018.
A meal served in Ayalon prison, May 16, 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In prison, practicing social distancing is nearly impossible. “The officer on duty counts us five times a day. He touches you, shakes your hand,” said one prisoner jailed in the north for serious violent offenses. “[the officer] can easily infect us, and if one gets infected, that’s it. End of story. How can you stay two meters apart when you’re nine in a room? Everything is very crowded, toilets and showers too, and the hygiene level is very low,” he said. “We got soap twice in a month. They promised more, but they haven’t brought in any.”

According to the prisoner from the north, the guards don’t wear gloves or masks and have refused to give them to inmates.

Many prisoners are also in high-risk groups for contracting the coronavirus. The prisoner jailed in southern Israel explains that he has been sick for a number of years, but due to delays in diagnosis by the prison’s medical services, his condition worsened. “I try not to leave the room. They aren’t taking me for my regular treatments any more. Soon I’ll need to be taken to the hospital for treatment, but it’s clear that won’t happen and I’ll just deteriorate.”

Prison guards leaving Hermon prison in northern Israel, March 8, 2020.
Prison guards leaving Hermon prison in northern Israel, March 8, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

He described the prisoners cooped up in their cells with nothing to do – all work assignments and classes have been cancelled. The social workers are not meeting with inmates, he says, and all rehabilitation and education programs have been cancelled.

A prisoner in his 30s serving a sentence for drug offenses in a prison in the south said: “Not long ago I asked to leave the prison to go to my father’s memorial service. Just to go out to say the mourners’ prayer. Because of the virus I was denied. Everyone here is afraid.” The prisoner added, “The guards will bring in the disease, no one can promise us that they won’t be infected on the outside. We always feel like we’re at the bottom of the totem pole, the last ones anyone thinks about. Now especially.”

Complaints about lack of hygiene abound. “I asked now for a sponge to wash up with, but they’ve stopped selling them ‘for security reasons,’” says a prisoner in his 30s serving time for violent crimes in a prison in the north. Like other inmates, he warns that the stress of poor conditions and lack of communication with the outside world will lead to an outbreak of violence. “How much longer can you keep people locked up in cells, cooped up, afraid? Another month or two and it will blow up. It’ll be an explosion… It’ll blow up on the staff, between the prisoners. People will fall apart.”

An inmate in the north serving time for violent crimes, adds: “Listen, there’s going to be a blowup. There’s no contact with the outside world, no conjugal visits, nothing. Seven or eight people are locked up in a cell. We’re afraid for our lives. Every day there’s another incident. There’s fighting over nothing. The situation here is very hard, we’re in a pressure cooker, very frustrated and bored.”

A view of Abu Kabir prison in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2020.
A view of Abu Kabir prison in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

The Israel Prisons Service responded: “In light of the coronavirus crisis, the prisons service is dealing with a complex event that threatens the health and safety of the staff, the prisoners and the entire public. The prisons service is monitoring everyone who comes in, including the staff, to prevent introduction of the virus into the prisons and is acting in accordance with the Health Ministry directives to maintain the health and welfare of the inmates.”

Meanwhile, the prisons service is preparing to isolate entire prisons in case of an outbreak of the virus. Prisoners from Saharonim Prison in the south are being evacuated, in order to create room to quarantine prisoners who have been exposed to possible infection.

The release dates of about 500 prisoners who are due to go free within a few weeks are being moved up to ease overcrowding. The criteria for release have yet to be finalized, but prisoners charged with relatively minor, non-violent offenses and have not been convicted of sexual offenses are likely to be candidates for early release.

Attorney Or Shapiro-Saar, who represents a number of prisoners, says the older and sick inmates should be released first. “Along with the overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions, the prisons service ignores the population at risk within its walls – the elderly and the sick. They should be released or at least offered suitable solutions. This puts the prisoners at risk but also the general public because closure can never be hermetic. Prisoners still enter the prison after their conviction and guards go to and from home,” she says. “The prisons service is also wronging their own staff,” she adds.

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