Israel Rushed Ill Prisoner's Release to Avoid First COVID Death in Jail, Officials Say

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Sharon Prison, where the prisoner who died of the coronavirus was held, seen three years ago.
Sharon Prison, where the prisoner who died of the coronavirus was held, seen three years ago.Credit: Rami Shllush
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The prison service sought to release a prisoner a short time before he died of COVID-19 last week to preempt claims that it did not vaccinate prisoners early enough, according to officials in the prison service and law enforcement.

To speed up his release, the prison service agreed that because he had no other family, he could be cared for by his daughter. The prisoner was serving an eight-and-a-half year sentence for the rape of his daughter, who had since seemingly forgiven him.

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Although the Health Ministry ordered the vaccination of prisoners, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana ordered the prison service commissioner not to vaccinate them. After a series of petitions submitted by human rights organizations to the High Court of Justice, the prison service began vaccinating prisoners on January 17, several days after the original date requested by the Health Ministry. The prisoner who died was vaccinated on the last day of the vaccination campaign – a day before the High Court hearing in which Ohana’s orders were sharply criticized.

The prison service said that the prisoner who died was not in one of the categories of people who had first priority for the vaccine – those over 60 or with an underlying health condition.

Three days after receiving the first vaccine dose, the prisoner’s temperature rose and he tested positive for the coronavirus. He was hospitalized and his condition deteriorated for 10 days. By the beginning of February, he was in critical condition.

On February 2, at the order of Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry, the service’s parole board was asked to release the prisoner on parole for a limited period for health reasons, while he was in an induced coma. A number of prison service and law enforcement officials said that the request was made not just to let him die as a free man, but mostly to avoid him being the first prisoner death from COVID-19.

The chairman of the parole board had a public defender appointed for the prisoner, and while the prison service pushed for his release, the State Prosecutor’s Office objected – in part because he had no guardian appointed to care for him if he was released. The prosecutor’s office said the prisoner had no one to speak on his behalf.

As the prisoner’s condition deteriorated, his daughter said she was willing to take over his care. The prosecution objected, while the prison service continued to press for his release. While the proceedings were still continuing, he died and the prison service was forced to record him as its first death from COVID-19.

“This is the way the prison service works,” said a law enforcement official. “To avoid a situation where people say a prisoner died, they rush to release him. In this case, the motive was clear because we delayed giving vaccinations and up to then, no prisoner had died of coronavirus.”

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