On a sunny day in Hermon Prison, inmates freely mulled about, as music streamed from a prison cell more closely resembling a dormitory, and a cat perched on a windowsill.
The low-security prison a dozen kilometers north of Tiberias is Israel’s largest rehabilitation facility, housing around 500 prisoners, 40 of whom were convicted for domestic violence offenses, and are receiving treatment at the facility’s Beit Hatikva (House of Hope) unit.
These 40 men have been convicted of egregious violence against family members, most commonly a spouse. Convictions also include sex offenses and two cases of murder.
At Hermon, prisoners undergo an intensive rehabilitation program that forces them to face problems with violent behavior head on, and to dig deep into their personal history to better understand themselves, in the hope that this will prevent repeat offenses once they are released.
“There’s no other option,” said Noam Ben-Naim head of the Hermon Prison social workers. “If we want to avoid the next murder, we must try to rehabilitate them.”
Domestic violence is a major issue in Israel, where 40% of women between the ages of 16 and 48 have experienced verbal, economic, emotional, social or physical violence from their partner at some time in their lives, according to a study titled “Violence Against Women in their Reproductive Age and its Effects on Health” presented in November 2016 by Dr. Nihaya Daoud and Prof. Ilana Shoham-Vardi of the public health department at Ben-Gurion University’s Faculty of Health Sciences.
According to a study titled “The ‘care package,’ prison domestic violence programs and recidivism” published in June 2016 in the Journal of Experimental Criminology by Dr. Badi Hasisi, Prof. David Weisburd and Noam Haviv of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Prof. Efrat Shoham and Anat Zelig of Ashkelon Academic College, prisoners released from the Beit Hatikva program between 2004 and 2012 were nearly 40% less likely to return to prison than an untreated control group after four years.
However, after five years Beit Hatikva prisoners still had a 30% general reincarceration rate and a 13% reincarceration rate for violent offenses, compared to 40% and 24%, respectively, for the untreated group.
After three woman were killed within seven days in late March and early April of this year, the ever-present issue of violence against women was propelled to the headlines.
Thirty-five-year-old mother of two Lina Ismail was shot and killed in the northern town of Rameh, and a gag order was placed on the investigation.
A gag order was also placed on the murder of Siam Azbaraja, 30, shot and killed at her home in Lod. Meir Goldstein, 34, is alleged to have decapitated his ex-wife, Adele Goldstein, 33, in Tiberias on March 29.
Following the spate of murders, MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List), who chairs the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, blasted authorities for lacking a national plan to deal with the issue.
“If three murders in a week do not turn on a red light for the authorities, then what will?” she asked.
Nasser (not his real name), 49, who has been treated in Beit Hatikva for the past three months, repeatedly abused his wife and 9 children.
“This is what I learned in my life – that the man controls the woman,” said Nasser, who spoke while sitting on a wood picnic bench. “When I was angry, I acted like I owned her.
“Here I received treatment and information, showing that all I thought before – that my violence was fine – now I understand that this was violence. Here I am learning a different path, to open up the problem and to speak about it.”
The 40 men, treated by four social workers, come from mixed religious and secular backgrounds, and are split nearly evenly between Jewish and Arab offenders. Prisoners in the program have between one and three years remaining on their sentences, and are selected based on certain criteria, including a willingness to enter the program and a desire to rehabilitate themselves.
For around a year, two prisoners share a room that receives ample sunlight with a cool breeze that blows through the window. During a visit in early April, they ate a lunch of chopped salad, hot dogs and corn.
All prisoners must be able to communicate in Hebrew, leading some Israeli-Arab inmates to undergo a language seminar at the prison.
The men then go through three stages of treatment, which take at least one year. In the first stage, which takes three months, the offender begins to learn the process of the prison and integrate into the program. During this stage, he participates in different-sized groups, hears the stories of the other offenders, and is supposed to begin to face and admit his problem with violence.
“He begins to understand that he is not here just as a passage through prison,” said Yair Hammerschlag, who is part of the four-person social worker team at Beit Hatikva. “In fact, [the inmate] has a general problem with violence, toward his spouse and with others, and he begins to understand, to internalizes this.”
In the second and central stage of the treatment, which lasts three to nine months, the prisoner enters groups that deal specifically with issues of violence, relationships, the effect of seeing violence as a child, and other topics.
Painted in bright red on the wall of one of the group therapy rooms is the “cycle of violence,” which begins with compression, moves into escalation and outburst, and eventually turns to remorse, until the cycle continues again.
The prisoners also starts to take on a “big brother” role for new prisoners in Beit Hatikva, and must discuss with them how their abusive actions expressed themselves in different stages of their lives and how they are expressed today.
Finally, the prisoner enters a third stage, usually around three months, where he plays a more significant role and assumes more responsibilities over his peers.
“It is very important that they see and say how their violence is expressed today. They can’t say, ‘That’s it, now I’m in treatment, everything is okay and I am no longer a violent person,’” remarked Hammerschlag. “A violent person is a violent person, and he will stay that way his entire life. Even if he stops physically attacking people, he will always have violent thoughts.”
Nasser, who will return to southern Israel to live with the wife and children that he abused, believes he now has the tools to cope with his tendency toward violence.
“Today I know the side of my wife, that it was good [that she turned to the police],” said Nasser. “If I would have continued, I don’t know where I would have gone.”