Foreign children in Israeli jails: 'Mom, why are we here?'

Not just America: It is difficult to believe, but it is the reality in Israel in 2018 - children aged, 3, 5 and 7 sitting in prison like all other inmates.

A Nigerian woman and her children in Givon prison (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
A Nigerian woman and her children in Givon prison
You could hear the absurdity from the first moment that we stepped into Givon Prison. The strong buzz of the blue steel door opening, and immediately after stepping inside, a loud screeching sound, iron striking iron when the door closed behind us. Sounds of prison, causing even those that have never been behind bars to tremble.
Suddenly, however, one sound is heard that does not fit the narrative of iron and keys: the sound of children playing, that you may usually hear during the afternoon hours when children are scampering around outside the window. Certainly not the type you would expect to hear in a prison housing criminals, rapists and murderers.
It is difficult to believe, but it is the reality in Israel in 2018 - children aged, 3, 5 and 7 sitting in prison like all other inmates.
In the same week that Israeli children finished school and set off for their summer vacation, dividing their time between friends, camp, swimming pools and family outings, in Givon Prison there are six imprisoned children dividing their time between morning roll call and running between prison cells. Without friends, without a supporting environment. Only with their mother, prison guards and other prisoners.
"Every night before bedtime, the children ask me, 'Mom, why are we here? Are we thieves? Have we done something wrong?' I look at them and say, 'Not at all, I'm on vacation.' But they know that isn't the case," P tells us, nicknamed Marcy, an illegal immigrant and mother to four children - the youngest is two years old and the oldest only seven.
All were born in Israel, and all are imprisoned with her.
Marcy arrived in Israel in 2010 from Nigeria. Here, she met her husband and brought four children into the world. One year ago, her husband was deported from Israel and she was left with her four children.
Three weeks ago, immigration officers knocked on her door and gave her this difficult choice: Leave Israel with the children, or to accompany them in custody. For lack of any other option, Marcy chose to enter prison with her children.
"Nearly a month has passed, but the children aren't getting used to it," she says in tears. "The opposite, it's becoming harder for them. Every time they play too energetically and go wild, the prison guards tell them, 'If you make noise, we'll lock you in your room.' It's not nice, they aren't free, they understand this isn't home. They ask all the time, 'When are we going home?' and I tell them, 'very soon.' I don't tell them when because I don't really know."
As we walk through the central corridor, the cell doors are all locked. At the entrance to Marcy and her family's cell, we see four bunk beds. "We locked the rest of the prisoners in their cells because we knew you were coming," the head of the wing explains to us.
Suddenly, from outside the corridor, we hear yelling, an argument between two female prisoners. Apart from us and the children, it seems like nobody is moved by it, because this is routine, routine in a prison.
"We really miss our friends. I miss Natan and Michael, I want to play football with them," said Marcy's five-year-old son.
"We're not allowed to play football here in the corridor," explains Marcy's seven-year-old eldest son, the child with the most Israeli name. During the conversation, a younger brother runs out of the room in tears.
"He was born premature with complications," explains Marcy. "When he was little he had a stomach operation, and then another operation due to a hernia that was discovered, and a few years ago he had an operation on his respiratory tract. Doctors told me to stay in Israel as long as possible to keep an eye on him, so that his condition can improve.
"He suffers from severe asthma since birth, and in Nigeria he can't receive treatment, and that's why I'm staying here."
During the last year, he studied at Tel Aviv's "Aran" school. He was taken from his home one evening, three weeks before the end of the school years, and didn't even have the chance to separate from his classmates.
"If they'll just give me one more years to treat my son, who will benefit from the warm and dedicated treatment that he'll receive here, after that we'll leave," promises Marcy.
"I don't want them to be deported from Israel, from here, from prison. They have friends that love them and miss them. They want to say bye."
The issue of deporting illegal immigrants is a moral dilemma in many countries. Even with a severe approach, stating that it is legitimate to deport illegal female immigrants and imprison them if they refuse, the fact that children are being imprisoned with them is another matter.
It gives an impression that, by imprisoning children, authorities in Israel are applying improper pressure on mothers to leave the country.
In a cell near Marcy's is A, an illegal immigrant from Ethiopia imprisoned with her two daughters - a one-year-old baby and a three-year-old girl - for a month-and-a-half already.
"My daughter is three-and-a-half and she is going backwards, suddenly she wants a pacifier, she wets her pants, she is afraid," A says in tears.
"My little daughter is suffering from breathing difficulties, I am scared that something will happen to them, that my daughter will die. It's impossible to live here as human beings."
Israeli law permits female prisoners who are mothers to stay with their babies in prison until they are two years old, with an understanding that from such an age, children begin to understand what is going on around them, and the fact that they are imprisoned 24 hours a day in prison, without any ability to escape its confines, negatively affects them.
In addition, Israeli law does not permit the imprisonment of teenagers younger than 14 years old who committed crimes, with the exception of special youth institutions.
"Sometimes I tell them we are on vacation, in order to change the atmosphere," explains Marcy with a bitter smile. "But they already understand everything. The eldest comes to me and asks: 'If we are on vacation, mom, why are their grills on our windows? Why can't we leave when we want?' It's obvious to me that it's hard for them, but what else can I tell them?"
The prison service is trying its utmost in an impossible situation. The team of female prison officers in the wing at Givon purchase candies, cereals, games and toys for the children in order to somehow lessen the traumatic prison experience. The cells housing families remain open all day, closing from 9:30 p.m. until 6 a.m. roll call.
The children are permitted to go out to the "yard" - a space with a grey concrete floor and a ceiling looking towards the sky, yet between the children and the sky are iron bars.
In the middle of the "yard" there is a small slide located between the laundry lines of the prisoners, a bench used for a smoking area and public telephones. Despite the exceptional situation, the prison officers have not undergone specialized training for treating small children within the prison walls and they work according to motherly intuition and self-concern.
"All of us have little children, we become connected to them," said the wing manager.
"I relate to the viewpoint that the children don't need to be here, but when they are, we do our utmost," said Israeli Prison Service spokesman Asaf Librati.
"Also those saying that they were worse off outside, and they received inferior medical attention, and their apartment was this or that size, maybe it's correct, but I don't accept it and it's not important. Prison is prison, and children don't need to be here. Period."
Although Interior Minister Arye Deri has the authority to deal with these types of humanitarian situations, and despite repeated appeals to his bureau, he has refused to comment on this case.
The Population and Immigration Authority also refused to comment on the situation of the children, only issuing a response in relation to the mother: "This relates to the case of an illegal immigrant of many years. Every court has held that she must leave the country. The above mentioned has been making the law for herself for a long time and has not left. We are unable to reach a different decision from the court."
Interior Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Minister of Welfare and Social Services Haim Katz also refused to comment on the matter.
MK Michal Rozin decided to take on the matter, and wrote a letter with her attorney to Deri so that he would voice his opinion on the imprisonment of children in Israeli prisons. No response has yet been received.
Like the female prison officers, who struggle to see the children in custody, so too the teachers of Marcy's eldest son, who set out to raise money to help the famly: They raised money and paid for an attorney who would represent them in court.
The school's educational team also issued their expert opinion, emphasizing the importance of leaving Marcy's eldest son another year in the system, in order to continue to give him tools ahead of his return to a foreign country.
All the children in prison were born in Israel, speak Hebrew, sing songs in the language and don't know a reality other than the State of Israel.
This poses the question whether the state considers the well-being of the children that it orders to send to prison. Does it consider the damage that vulnerable children are likely to experience in such a case, and does it weigh up other possibilities in similar cases, such as carrying out arrests at night?
Is it becoming of decision makers, who avert their eyes so as not to deal with the difficult reality of seeing a three-year-old girl crying at the end of a Givon Prison corridor, and a five-year-old girl leaning on an iron door, crying and whispering quietly: "I miss my friends"?
Translated by Eytan Halon