More than 1,400 Palestinian prisoners held in isolation in Israel in last six years

Published: 
2 Jun 2013

In September 2012, Israel’s Public Defender's office published a report on the isolation of inmates in Israeli prisons. The report criticized the isolation of minors and called for use of this measure to be restricted or at least limited in scope. Other points of concern raised in the report include: the use of isolation instead of other available measures to deal with inmates who suffer from mental problems; the mental harm caused to inmates by isolation; and the lack of rehabilitative, occupational, educational or recreational activities for isolated inmates.

Two kinds of isolation are used in Israel’s prison system: solitary confinement, in which the inmate is held alone, and confinement in pairs, in which two inmates are held together in a cell and are entirely cut off from all other inmates. Isolated inmates are permitted to leave their cells for only one out of every 24 hours.

Israel Prison Service (IPS) orders allow the isolation of inmates, both adults and minors, for long periods based on an administrative decision made by an IPS official, either as a punitive or a preventative measure. Punitive isolation is permitted for a period of up to 14 days. Isolation as a preventative measure is permitted only as a last resort and as long as it fulfills one of the grounds enumerated by law, including prison or state security, safeguarding the physical well-being or health of the inmate or other inmates and preventing a violent offence or a drug deal. Although no upper time-limit was stipulated for this type of isolation, authorization by a District Court is required to exceed six months of solitary confinement or twelve months for confinement in pairs.

In addition, the law allows isolating detainees who have not yet been tried for the duration of their investigation. An investigation can last up to 30 days, and can then be extended by authority of the Attorney General.

In response to a request submitted under the Freedom of Information Act, the IPS recently sent B’Tselem information on the isolation of inmates, which contained general data about Israeli inmates and more detailed data about Palestinian inmates. In its response, the IPS wrote that “isolation is a highly exceptional procedure, used with periodic supervision and under strict judicial review, while ensuring that the legal rationale for the isolation exists”.

However, the figures sent to B’Tselem indicate that isolation is used not only in exceptional cases: from 1 January 2007 to 28 April 2013, 5,602 inmates were held in isolation, some of them on more than one occasion. 4,078 of the inmates were Israelis, 1,493 were Palestinians (including residents of East Jerusalem), and 31 were of another nationality. Almost all of the inmates held in isolation were convicted prisoners, and only 12 were under arrest. B’Tselem requested a breakdown of the figures based on the rationale for isolation, but received no response.

Adult inmates held in isolation:

Total Adult men held in isolation Adult women held in isolation Total
Israeli 3,743 170 3,913
Palestinian 1,401 16 1,417
Other 25 3 28
Total 5,169 189 5,358

Palestinian adults held in isolation

As stated, from 1 January 2007 to 28 April 2013, 1,493 Palestinian inmates were held in isolation. On 1,786 occasions, they were held alone, and on 847 occasions, they were held in pairs.

18 adult Palestinians, all men, were held in solitary confinement for more than half a year, continuously; of these, seven men were held for more than three years, and three men were held in continuous isolation for more than seven years.

Three adult Palestinians, all men, were confined in a pair for more than half a year, continuously; of these, one was held in continuous isolation for more than three years.

In the data provided regarding separate occasions of isolation that accumulated to long periods, solitary confinement was not differentiated from confinement in pairs: 14 inmates were held in isolation on separate occasions that, cumulatively, amounted to more than half a year; of these, seven were held for more than three years, in total, and three were held for more than seven years, in total.

Minors held in isolation

The international standards set by the UN absolutely forbid holding minors in isolation, which is considered a cruel measure that could harm their wellbeing or safety. While these standards are not binding, they serve as guidelines for the treatment of minors in custody.

The data provided by the IPS raise grave concern over the isolation of minors: over the course of nearly six and a half years, 244 Israeli, Palestinian and other minors residencies were held in isolation, some of them more than once. The following figures were provided by the IPS:

From 1 January 2007 to 28 April 2013, 76 Palestinian minors – 75 boys and one girl – were held in isolation on 100 separate occasions: on 68 occasions (including the only girl), a minor was isolated alone, and on 32 occasions, minors were isolated in pairs.

Seven of the minors were less than 16 years old, and the rest were 16 to 18 years old. Of the former age group, one minor was held in isolation on two separate occasions, and the rest were held once. The figures provided by the IPS did not indicate whether they were held alone or in pairs.

The single girl, who was more than 16 years old, was held in isolation once, alone, for a period of up to a week. The 68 male minors above the age of 16 were held in isolation on 91 occasions. The IPS did not detail how many times each one of them was held in isolation.

Prolonged isolationThe IPS provided two kinds of figures regarding Palestinian minors isolated for long periods: continuous isolation and accumulated periods of isolation.

Continuous solitary confinement

  • One minor was held in solitary confinement for a continuous period of 30 to 90 days (The IPS did not provide a more exact figure)
  • 28 minors were held in solitary confinement for a continuous period of up to a month.
  • 39 minors (including the girl) were held in solitary confinement for a continuous period of up to a week.

Continuous confinemt in pairs

  • 15 minors were confined in pairs for a continuous period of up to a month.
  • 17 minors were confined in pairs for a continuous period of up to a week.

The figures on cumulative periods of isolation were not divided into solitary confinement and confinemen in pairs, nor was the number of occasions that each minor was put in isolation mentioned.

  • One minor was held in isolation on several different occasions, for a cumulative period of 91 to 183 days (The IPS did not provide a more exact figure).
  • One minor was held in isolation, on separate occasions, for a cumulative period of one to three months (The IPS did not provide a more exact figure).
  • 39 minors were held in isolation, on separate occasions, for a total of one month.
  • 35 minors (including the girl) were held in isolation, on separate occasions, for up to a week.

Holding a person in isolation can have harsh implications. As for minors, the standards set by international law absolutely forbid holding them in isolation, and experts in the treatment of minors have clarified how destructive such an experience may be.

On 29 May 2013, the Knesset’s Interior Committee discussed the conditions in which inmates are held in isolation. According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Adv. Galia Nitzany of the Public Defender's office stated before the Committee that, in addition to the sheer number of inmates being held in isolation – some 100 inmates, nine of them minors, on the day of the discussion, according to the IPS – the conditions in which they are being held are illegal. Some of the inmates have been held in isolation while handcuffed; in one case, matters deteriorated so far that an inmate’s handcuffs turned rusty and the IPS had to saw them off.

The isolation of Israeli and Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons is highly problematic: it is used frequently, for long periods of time, and under harsh conditions, as reported by Adv. Nitzany. In addition, the fact that judicial review is required only after half a year, when an inmate is isolated alone, or after a year, if inmates are isolated in pairs, constitutes inadequate supervision. In a discussion following the Knesset Committee’s discussion, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein supported stricter supervision over the conditions in which inmates are held in isolation, particularly where minors are concerned. B’Tselem calls upon the Attorney General and all relevant officials to take swift and efficient action in this matter, including setting strict rules for the isolation of adult inmates and enhancing judicial review. B’Tselem calls upon the IPS to refrain entirely  from holding minors in isolation.