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My visit to Damon Prison: Perched high on Mount Carmel, the prisoners here will never see the sea

My visit to Damon Prison: Perched high on Mount Carmel, the prisoners here will never see the sea

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أسيرات الكرمل لا يرين البحر... زيارتي لسجن الدامون


On October 22nd, I visited Damon prison on the slopes of Mount Carmel near Haifa to meet with the Palestinian female detainees. This visit was unlike any other. In fact, it was unlike any of my previous visits to other Israeli prisons. This marked the first time prisons opened their doors to visitors following the state of emergency that was declared earlier that month. All visits were prohibited, regardless of whether the visitor was a lawyer, part of the Red Cross, or a family member left in the dark, after phone calls were also forbidden.

I submitted a request to visit female detainees at Damon Prison near my city of Haifa. The number of female detainees had risen initially to 50, and later to 85, from 28 before October 7, despite prison capacity allowing only 48 detainees. This alone warned me of the overcrowding and harsh conditions that Palestinian female detainees and prisoners were experiencing.

I headed to Damon Prison to visit a female detainee I had previously met with, in addition to another who had been recently detained. As I reached the prison, located at the top of Mount Carmel, I noticed the drop in temperature. I parked my car nearby, on the most beautiful corner of the mountain, directly overlooking the sea. However, the prisoners cannot witness this beauty, as they live behind high walls and fences.

As I reached the prison, at the top of Mount Carmel, I noticed the drop in temperature. I parked my car in a spot overlooking the sea. Such a beautiful view; one that the prisoners, behind the prison walls and enclosed by fences, will never witness.

I went through the usual routine procedures, and presented my professional ID and entry permit with the names of the detainees. I waited for about an hour outside the prison – there is no waiting room or a chair to sit on. I finally crossed the first gate, where I handed over my water bottle and emptied it so I could refill it in front of the prison guard. Then I passed through the electric gate, so that a second guard could accompany me to the inner courtyard. I waited for him to come. He arrived, and led me down a corridor so narrow that it could barely fit two people walking side by side.

The internal door opens to the small inner courtyard connecting all sections of the prison. The other door closed behind me. We walked a few dozen meters, and another front gate opened to a smaller inner courtyard. On the right was the lawyers' room, and on the left were offices and a small, crowded room filled with new detainees. I attempted to speak with them, but the guard warned, “No talking!” I took a few steps toward the lawyers' room and was shocked to see gas balloons, plastic barricades, helmets, and protective suits piled up in the middle of the courtyard: an indication of war. The situation was far from ordinary. The atmosphere was tense, with a large number of guards positioned in the courtyard and the office.

My first client and later my second client arrived. To them, it was as though I had descended from heaven. That day marked the first day that the prison had opened its doors to lawyers after the declaration of a state of emergency. A fellow lawyer entered the prison before me, and as I passed her by on her way out, she muttered, “The situation here is catastrophic.” The detainees told me what I feared most: clampdowns, restrictions, assaults, overcrowding the prisoners in small cells, being forced to sleep on the floor, and being completely isolated from the rest of the world. They felt the need to share their stories, and I was the first person they saw, aside from the prison workers, in three weeks. They were concerned for their families and loved ones.

Before I left the courtyard, the guards began donning their helmets and carrying plastic barricades and gas balloons, as they headed towards the cell block. I was quickly ushered out. I left the prison with a heavy heart, full of fear for the female prisoners

I left Damon Prison with a wealth of information and plans for my next steps. The conversations I had would serve as crucial testimonies for the court in the appeal we planned to submit on behalf of several human rights organizations. However, the fear of harassment and threat of abuse within the detention center was great, and heightened, after learning that prisoners who complained to a judge or lawyer about their situation faced further abuse. Many other prisoners’ descriptions were similar, and there were many repeated testimonies of systematic violence and abuse.

I left the visitation room, and my last client exited accompanied by the guard toward cell block number 3. Before I left the courtyard, the guards began donning their helmets and carrying plastic barricades and gas balloons, as they headed towards the section. I was quickly ushered out. I left the prison with a heavy heart, full of fear for the female prisoners. Perhaps for the first time, I felt a sense of helplessness in the face of this difficult reality.

We are concerned for all the male and female prisoners, and the abuse they might face in light of the state of emergency declared in prisons, and the announcement by the General Commission for Prisoners' Affairs of reduced living conditions, which includes living space and basic necessities. What little luxury or comfort the prisoners, both male and female, have had so far will cease after today. The Prison Service confirmed in a statement that stricter conditions and restrictions were in response to security needs, and would include withdrawing all non-essential benefits. Consequently, prisoners were stripped of all electrical devices, with even kettles being deemed non-essential.

Prisoners are also denied access to the food store, or the Canteen, where they previously purchased food items and necessities with money deposited into private accounts managed by the Prison Service. The Canteen is made up of a few shelves with limited goods, not an actual store as one might imagine. Fourah, the hour-long break for venturing out into the covered and fenced inner courtyard with narrow iron openings through which the prisoners could see the sky, has been prohibited. The sky has been obscured, and prisoners could no longer see the light.

As I passed a lawyer on her way out of the prison, she muttered, “The situation here is catastrophic.” The detainees told me what I feared most: clampdowns, restrictions, assaults, being forced to sleep on the floor, and being completely isolated from the world

Prison cell doors have been locked under the pretext of preventing meetings between prisoners and any coordination among them. Similarly, shower hours were greatly reduced. Small transistor radios, purchased by prisoners from their allowances, were confiscated, along with the single television they collectively paid for. The prisoners previously shared viewing times for television programs and the news according to an internal system they devised, which enabled them to share their space, or, the lack thereof, throughout their prison terms, which, for some, might span their lifetime.

Electricity has been cut off in the cells at all hours of the day, leaving prisoners in constant darkness and cold. There is no heating or sufficient blankets to protect them from the winter chill. With prison gates closed and family visits prohibited, there is no way for the prisoners to refresh their wardrobes. To be clear, it's not really a wardrobe, as the narrow cells do not allow for it. Here, wardrobes consist of simple shelves made by the prisoners (like all the other simple things they have been forced to create due to lack of provisions by the Prison Service, such as knives for cutting food, as knives are prohibited for security reasons). There is no room for prisoners to swap their summer clothes for winter ones, which their families bring from home, as prisoners are not allowed to accumulate clothes inside the cells. None of the recent detainees had any spare clothes, and older prisoners had their clothes taken away, with most of them left with only one piece of clothing. We learned from lawyers and testimonies from former detainees that prisoners were forced to wash their underwear by hand and wear them while still wet.

Cell doors have been locked at all times. Shower hours have been reduced. Electricity has been cut off in the cells throughout the day, leaving prisoners in a state of constant darkness. There is no heating or any blankets to protect them from the winter chill.

Prisoners have always shared a very limited space, which has now become even more cramped. The prisons are overcrowded, with the number of detainees increasing by the thousands since October 7, 2023, resulting in each prisoner having less than three square meters of space. The Israeli war cabinet had enacted an emergency detention law, allowing the Minister of Internal Security to reduce the living space of prisoners, withdraw their beds when necessary, and force them to sleep on mattresses on the floor. These amendments were swiftly implemented. Our fears that prisoners are subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment – torture, even – has increased. This is in contradiction to international law and rules of the treatment of prisoners, including the Convention against Torture and the Nelson Mandela Rules.

There was also a blackout and secrecy surrounding information about detainees from Gaza. A number of civilians and workers were arrested, the majority of whom, according to reports, were taken under mysterious circumstances. Following the declaration of a state of war, Israel revoked work permits for thousands of Gazan workers, declaring them illegal and throwing them into prisons under army control, without disclosing any information about these facilities. Later, images were circulated by the media depicting humiliating arrests, and semi-naked detainees being rounded up in trucks. The army itself later admitted that “most of them were civilians.”

Fourah, the hour-long break for venturing out into the covered and fenced inner courtyard with narrow iron openings through which the prisoners could see the sky, has been prohibited. The sky has been obscured, and prisoners could no longer see the light.

The concern for male and female prisoners has become very tangible after the announcement that a number of prisoners had died. Lawyers have requested visitation, which was denied under the pretext of a state of emergency. Several human rights organizations submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in the country, warning of the danger of the situation and the possibility of detainees and prisoners being subjected to torture. The appeal was rejected, and the Supreme Court adopted the state's response, citing a “security necessity” and rejecting the organizations' claim that the conditions were “unreasonable” and failed to uphold basic rights.

The female detainees I visited that day were later released as part of an exchange deal, along with a large number of other female prisoners from Damon Prison. But daily arrests continue, and the prison has been filled once again. While we persist in our struggle for justice, and in defense of detainees, I wonder how many women have been arrested in the time it has taken me to write this text?



* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22




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