HaMoked and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel to the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee: prison visits by family and lawyers must not be banned due to the pandemic; legislation must ensure regular contact between inmates and the outside world when visits are suspended
On July 12, 2020, HaMoked and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel wrote to the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee to voice their principled objection to the proposed law: “Prevention of Entry of Visitors and Lawyers to Incarceration Places, Police Stations and Prisons, Guard Rooms and Military Prisons (Temporary Order), 5780-2020”, drafted as part of the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic. The intent behind the bill is to enact in primary legislation the Emergency Regulations (Prevention of Entry of Visitors and Lawyers to Prisons and Detention Facilities), established March 2020. The organizations clarified that in its current version, this legislation would deny all visitors and lawyers from entering prisons, and could cause severe and disproportionate harm to the rights of prisoners and detainees, primarily their rights to proper legal representation and family life. Instead, reasonable alternatives must be pursued in order to ensure the health of inmates, visitors and security forces in the incarceration facilities. One such option is to conduct visits while maintaining total separation by using transparent divisions which are already in regular use during visits to persons classified as “security” prisoners.
The letter stressed that in the current situation, with the attendant anxiety and distress concerning the health and other consequences of the pandemic, it is unacceptable to deny inmates all contact with the outside world. Such a proposal not only stands in complete contradiction to international standards relating to imprisonment, but may also increase the inmates’ exposure to cruel and inhuman treatment by the interrogation and incarceration authorities.
This legislation, the organizations said, could have particularly severe repercussions for those who are classified as “security” prisoners, because they – unlike “criminal” prisoners – are not entitled to phone contact with their families and can only maintain contact with their families in the framework of prison visits. Moreover, although Israeli families have been able to resume visits to their loved ones in prison, such visits by families from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are still unavailable. And so, Palestinian “security” inmates have not seen their families for over four months. The proposed legislation could result in a continuation of this dismal situation, which means, among other things, that many prisoners are still without summer clothes and other personal items families bring them in the framework of the visits. The same is true for deposits of money into their prison accounts, used for prison-canteen purchases – Palestinian “security” prisoners must manage without these regular deposits.
The organizations noted that following the comments of the Supreme Court – in the framework of a petition they filed jointly with other NGOs – the Israel Prison Service had to mitigate the harm caused by the recent emergency regulations and enable telephone contact for “security” inmates
(once every two weeks for minors and a single call for adults). Obviously, where primary legislation is concerned, the legislator has an increased obligation to prevent severe harm to inmates’ rights, and must ensure that at least minimal contact between inmates and their families remains possible. Therefore, if such legislation is passed, it must address the issue of the entire inmate population’s right to family life, including minimal regular contact between security inmates and their families. The legislation must include, among other things, a provision ensuring regular audio-visual communication between security inmates and their families.
As to the suspension of visits by lawyers, the organizations wrote that a face-to-face meeting – not via telephone or other technological means – was one of the essential safeguards against abuse and ill-treatment of inmates. Only thus can a lawyer form a direct impression of inmates’ physical and mental condition, the manner of their interrogation and the treatment they receive. The fact that, concurrently, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is considering a bill proposal to conduct legal proceedings via technological means could lead to the dangerous situation whereby detainees would not be allowed to meet their attorneys throughout the legal proceedings. A meeting with a lawyer is also crucial for other matter unrelated to representation in the criminal proceedings. Therefore, it is imperative to establish in the law an effective mechanism to ensure that both inmates and their lawyers can ask for a lawyer’s visit even during a declared ban on entering prisons.