By Colonel (ret.) Natan Paz, founder, and Co-Ceo of Infinity-Intelligence Ltd

The fight against the Coronavirus is taking place on a number of fronts, but a mere few think about one of the most challenging arenas in the fight against it – prisons. It is the duty of the country to provide the people who are at the frontlines, the necessary equipment required to protect themselves.

Those who thought that world wars are only conventional are receiving quite a wakeup call these days. We are in the midst of a world war against the deadly Corona Virus which unfortunately leaves many casualties around the globe on a daily basis. Israel entered the crisis unwillingly like any developed country that thrives on worldwide business and global tourism. Until now, we have experienced the loss of 12 human lives, and hopefully, we will not have more, but every reasonable person and our best experts warn us that we are only at the beginning of the crisis and the peak is yet to come. Considering all this, prisons around the world – and so in Israel – are becoming “a ticking time bomb” when it comes to the danger of contracting the virus, an event for which we must be prepared to deal with properly.

Signs of distress are coming from prisons all over the world

A few days ago, about 1,000 prisoners escaped from prisons all over Brazil – this happened after prison authorities announced that family visits are canceled due to the concerns of mass infection by the Coronavirus. Reports of escape attempts came from Italy and other countries around Europe as well, not to speak of the severe event in which six people were killed in a clash with enforcement authorities. Prisons contain thousands of prisoners as well as thousands of personnel staff, who are situated at the “world’s most crowded place”. If we thought that Gaza was crowded, we better think again. Prisons around the world are populated by human beings who are far less than two meters away from each other.

This means that prison wings will have cells that hold two, four, six, ten – and even twenty prisoners and more. These are all within a range of less than half a meter away from one another, when they are incarcerated. It seems that prison authorities around the world – and in Israel as well – have realized the immediate and tangible danger that is expected from the infection, and more so in prisons, therefore most of them imposed some sort of quarantine. Even in Israel, we witnessed how the Jerusalem Detention Center went into quarantine out of fear that one staff member was infected, as so recent decisions were made to close up the prisons and prohibit visits by anyone, even families and attorneys. It is apparent that an outbreak of the Coronavirus in a prison can quickly turn into a nightmare scenario for prison authorities, enforcement and health authorities alike.

Implementing prisoner releasing tools

In light of what was written earlier, the world started to internalize the need to release a large number of prisoners who do not pose a threat to society, and most of those who have served the majority of their sentence. Thus in Israel, the government announced their intention to release prisoners who served two-thirds of their prison term, and the same thing happens in countries like Iran – where thousands of prisoners were released; in prisons in Europe and even prisons in the U.S.A.

 

It’s all about a fast response and timing of release. Iran, that is dealing with hundreds and thousands of deaths from the Coronavirus, had implemented the aforesaid tool too little and too late. Therefore, the understanding is to release as early as possible, in order to create space inside the prison and to transform some of the facilities into isolation facilities for Corona patients. In Israel, so we were told, they implemented the tool very quickly and opened the Saharonim facility – a facility for foreigners – and declared it an isolation facility for Corona patients.

The issue is that the infection and passing it on is a significant part, if not the major one when dealing with prisoners. Now it requires an appropriate security response. The facility is not suitable for all types of prisoners in terms of the level of security, and here we have yet another dilemma brought to us by the Corona: Do we transfer prisoners at a higher level of security and take risks from a security standpoint, or do we rather leave them in the prison in quarantine or move them to another suitable facility? The risk management ability in Israel, much like the rest of the world, depends on the speed of response and solutions that can be implemented in time and during a crisis.

The need to adjust to a reversed perception

As someone who among other things had also served in the Israel Prison Service, the main perception is to enable the enforcement system to do its job in times of routine as well as during an emergency, and therefore to allow the absorption of as many detainees as possible that are brought in by the police and security organization, without creating the inability to act due to a shortage in space and the capacity to absorb them. The incarceration systems all around the world, and especially in Israel, are practiced in the “overcrowding” model – meaning to crowd as many prisoners possible in cells and wings and by that to enable the evacuation of detaining facilities in order to absorb new detainees. Moreover, the systems are practiced in opening temporary detaining facilities in times of emergencies such as during military operations or wars.

The pandemic crisis puts a new challenge in front of the prison authorities and decision-makers. No more using the “overcrowding” model, but rather the “spacing” model. Meaning, massive release – allowing for space between prisoners in cells and wings, establishing temporary incarceration facilities and turning them into isolation facilities in order to handle a smaller number of personnel. The more this tool of prisoners release is implemented, so will the prison authorities be able to better handle the Corona threat.

Shortage in medical equipment and professional staff

This crisis creates further dilemmas: Establishing more incarceration facilities and turning places into isolation facilities obligates the prison authorities and the medical department to allocate medical staff and medical equipment. The levels of the disease move between very mild to severe and critical. While according to the media, there’s a severe shortage in breathing machines, protection masks and hazmat suits for the national medical teams, it is safe to say that the prisons will also experience a shortage accordingly. This issue is true all over the world, and from foreign reports, we learn that there is a significant shortage in protection gear for the medical staff that stands in the frontlines of fighting this virus. Imagine what is going on at the prison. Although we have yet to receive confirmed reports of prisoners and/or staff members that contracted the virus, considering the trend, it is inevitable. Then, apart from the equipment needed to deal with isolating prisoners medically, indeed basic protection equipment for the prison guards and the serving staff may prove to be a difficult issue to face.

The dilemma of absorbing new detainees

The threat of Muslim terrorism is something that the whole world is facing in normal times, as well as in times of emergency like we are experiencing nowadays. Terrorism does not deal with social solidarity or with coming together for the sake of saving humanity. Terrorism acts to harm the civilian population and the very foundation of government. The same thing is true for crime. The criminal organizations will not cease their negative activities because of the Corona. In fact, it is the opposite. Experience tells us that organized crime and terrorism exploit the situations in which the country is extensively and otherwise engaged in other things to carry out their crimes. So, what do we do with new detainees? What do we do with those who will be purposefully placed in the system in order to infect others with the virus? How do we prepare with preliminary testing, medical equipment, and staff to perform tests with regards to new detainees? So, do we prevent the absorption of terror or crime detainees? Again, we witness the harsh dilemmas with which the prison authorities and the decision-makers are dealing with every second, beyond the usual need to cope with the emergency routine in which they are in.

If so, what do we do?

Far be it from me to give advice or provide solutions; there are people much greater and wiser than me in the service, and it is up to them to make decisions in Israel and around the world. But, in my humble opinion, attention should be given to several major issues. The first is the staff reserves and maintaining the continuous functioning of the prison systems during the crisis. To this end, there’s a need to recruit reserve personnel of those who are retired from the Israel Prison Service and people who can double the force and actual numbers of personnel. It is enough that only part of the threat of having hundreds of personnel in isolation comes to pass – that we will have a severe event with no alternate staff to man the usual prison tasks. Therefore, the duty of recruiting reserves to prisons as well rises and is required immediately. Bureaucratic matters in routine times pose an obstacle before the staff in their missions, surely in times of an emergency like this.

In my opinion, there’s an obligation to uphold a massive release of prisoners from the prison, to space up the prisons and allow the decision-makers and prison authorities to deal with the threat – and better it happens a second sooner than when it is too late like it happened in Iran. The third and last issue is to bring in medical and technological means with which to protect the staff and the prisoners as much as possible and to enable conditions to prevent infection among them.

The prison guard’s sense of security will come from the sense of security given to him by his superiors, and certainly, once they see the relevant equipment brought in to help them deal with the threat. Think of the staff member who serves at the prison 24 hours, performing security and incarceration tasks, in the heart of the criminal and security threat population – and we have already mentioned the crowding issue. It is the duty of the state to provide to its people who are at the forefront, the necessary equipment required to protect them. The same goes for the medical staff and certainly for the prison staff. We will power through this crisis, the question is, at what price, and how well we have prepared ourselves implementing correctly the tools we have at our disposal.