The number of prisoners placed in solitary confinement in Israel’s prisons in 2014 was nearly double the number from two years prior, according to a new report by Physicians for Human Rights.
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A total of 755 prisoners were placed in solitary confinement in Israel’s prisons in 2014, compared with 390 in 2012. And in July 2015, out of the 117 prisoners in solitary confinement, seven had been there for more than five years in a row.
The figures were obtained from the Israel Prison Service under the Freedom of Information Law.
The prison service has previously come under fire in reports by the state comptroller and Public Defender’s Office for its policy on the matter. However, the issue was never formally addressed.
Prisoners in Israel may be placed in solitary confinement in three cases: During interrogation, if deemed necessary; as a disciplinary measure; and to separate the inmate from the general prison population.
Israeli courts have called solitary confinement an extreme measure that should be used sparingly. The law allows solitary confinement to be imposed only when the security of the prison is at risk; to prevent real harm to discipline; and to protect the prisoner or other prisoners from bodily harm. In such cases, the prisoner is kept in a cell alone for 23 to 24 hours a day, for periods ranging from one day to an unlimited period.
The figures provided by the prison service do not relate to solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure, so the figures could actually be much higher.
In 2015, 85 of the 117 prisoners in confinement – i.e., locked in a cell for 23 hours – were held alone, while 32 were confined with another cellmate. Of this number, 94 were criminal offenders and 23 were Palestinian security prisoners.
In July 2015, there were seven minors held in solitary confinement. In the Neve Tirza women’s prison at that time, two prisoners were held in solitary confinement.
After six months’ solitary confinement of a prisoner being held alone – or a year of such confinement with a single cellmate – the prison service has to ask the courts to permit the solitary confinement to continue.
In 2013, the Public Defender’s Office conducted an inspection of the Eshel Prison in Be’er Sheva, including its solitary confinement cells. In its report, it noted that dozens of prisoners were being held there for lengthy periods in solitary confinement conditions that were against the law. The report found that 59 prisoners were being held at the time in high-security wings for all intents and purposes completely separated from the general prison population, but without benefit of the oversight required by law.
Past investigations have found that, in some cases, the prison service uses high-security wings for solitary confinement. High-security wings are meant to keep prisoners who are dangerous away from the general prison population, but within the wing prisoners are supposed to be able to interact with others. However, a 2013 report found that the high-security wing in Ayalon Prison, Ramle, had been given over to solitary confinement, but did not come under the scrutiny of the courts regarding duration of the measure since the prisoners were not officially defined as being in solitary.
In 2015, the PDO also investigated solitary confinement practices at Neve Tirza. It found that most of the female prisoners in solitary confinement were being held because of psychiatric conditions, which is against the law.
In many cases of psychiatric disorders, solitary confinement has been found to make the condition worse. The report by Physicians for Human Rights notes, “Solitary confinement is not treatment; on the contrary, it worsens existing psychological conditions and could cause irreparable damage.
“The prison service continues to confine prisoners suffering from mental health problems in solitary as a means of dealing with their health condition or as punishment for behavior that is not under their control,” the report added.
The prison service has a list of 41 disciplinary infractions, 36 of which can earn a prisoner solitary confinement. Number 41 is the most general: “Any act, behavior, disorder or neglect that harms proper order or discipline, even if they have not been delineated in previous clauses.”
Entertainer Dudu Topaz, who committed suicide in prison in 2009, raised public and institutional awareness, and prison service attempts to avoid prisoner suicide begin by identifying those with suicidal tendencies when they enter. But the prison service uses solitary confinement among its suicide prevention measures. In one incident, a prisoner who threatened suicide was kept in solitary for almost two years until the court intervened.
In the case of Palestinian security prisoners, held in solitary confinement to “protect state security,” the intelligence services decide when this measure is to be invoked. The court normally accepts the assessment of the Shin Bet security service, but in at least one case, a security prisoner was ordered released from solitary confinement over the Shin Bet’s wishes. For 10 years, the prisoner – serving a 12-year sentence for attempted murder, weapons charges, and terrorism and related crimes – was allowed only one family visit and was not permitted phone calls or to meet with other prisoners. District Court Vice President Tawfik Katili ruled that such confinement “to prevent future offenses caused great distress to the prisoner,” and that this measure should be “the exception, not the rule.”