Behind the bars

What is being done to prevent the revolving door at Israel's maximum security prison for women?

neveh tirzah inmate jail (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
neveh tirzah inmate jail
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When Miriam was only 14, she was arrested for attempted murder and sent to Israel's maximum-security prison for women, Neveh Tirza. Her ex-girlfriend, a prostitute, had been killed by a local gang in Tel Aviv. Since she was present at the time of the murder, Miriam's involvement was suspected, and police were already too familiar with the troubled teen who had been arrested multiple times for various drug crimes. Now 23, Miriam is currently serving her eighth stint in prison, this time for the armed robbery of her girlfriend to get money for drugs. Like more than half of the 200 women in Neveh Tirza, Miriam's story began with abuse and molestation. "I've never had a good day in my entire life," says Miriam, who was raped by her uncle from the time she was a little girl until she ran away from home at 14. Half of the ring finger of her left hand was chopped off, and though she won't divulge details, she says the beatings she suffered at the hands of her father left her with impaired vision in one of her eyes as well as numerous physical scars. Miriam's father, an Israeli Arab, and her mother, a Moroccan Jew, are addicted to alcohol and drugs, respectively. Her parents divorced and her birth father is not in contact with her; Miriam's mother remarried. Each time Miriam has been freed from prison, her parents have refused to welcome her back into their home or provide her with support of any kind. One of her brothers is also in jail for armed robbery related to drugs. As a result of long-term drug abuse, her other brother developed permanent psychosis and is in an insane asylum. She has spent most of her time outside prison sleeping on park benches and stealing for food. Often on the brink of suicide, Miriam turned to every kind of drug imaginable to sooth her suffering, and thus continued the vicious cycle of drugs, theft and eventually prison. The day I met Miriam, her younger sister was getting married. The prison system denied her request to be let out for the wedding. Early that morning, Miriam says she contemplated killing herself. "I want to change my life," she says. "My home was always cursing and beating and humiliation. I want to feel love and a warm home. It's what I see on the outside and can't have." Determined to try to rehabilitate the prisoners and give them the chance for a new life, Neveh Tirza, like the country's other prisons, offers classes for its inmates in basics such as reading and writing and in topics like journalism and art. Women are also given the opportunity to work and earn money - albeit small sums - in factories on the prison premises that are run and sponsored by private organizations. But Miriam neither learns nor works. Because she never had a proper education, she can't read or write and says she's too embarrassed at this stage to learn how. Though social workers are on hand to provide group or individual therapy, Miriam has declined to speak to anyone, even a psychologist, about her troubled emotional past. "I can't be rehabilitated," she laments. "My whole life people say they will help me, but they don't. How can it be that in this country, there is someone who is living on the streets, committing crimes and going to jail and they know why, they understand why and they don't do anything to help?" In just a few months, Miriam will be released from Neveh Tirza for the eighth time. She is planning to stay with her newly married sister and her husband until she can find a job and save money. But the harsh reality has shown that no matter how hard she tries, she is unable to help herself, and it is likely Miriam will end up right back in the jail cell she so wants to escape. "I'm sorry for what I did and I regret what I did, it was all under the influence of drugs," she says. "But without drugs, I'm too scared and too shy to survive in the real world. I don't want to come back here, but I don't know if I can live on the outside." INSIDE THE prison walls, the women are awakened for head count at 6:30 a.m. Those who wish to spend their mornings in class in an area that resembles an elementary school, with small classrooms colorfully decorated with plants and artwork made by the inmates. A small library offers books in Hebrew, Russian and Arabic. Though 25-30% of the female inmates are Arab, Warden Rena Harel claims there are rarely problems between them and the Jews. The women, she says, connect on a deeper level. Harel has spent the past 15 years working at Neveh Tirza, starting out teaching in the education program. But it is in fact the nation's educational system that Harel partially blames for girls who receive no guidance or supervision and end up, like Miriam, in jail. "The Education Ministry, the government and parents need to understand that if we don't raise our children correctly, we will see the dire consequences of our actions," she says. In many cases, Harel contends that it is already evident by the time they enter high school which children are going to wind up in trouble later in life. In Israel, she adds, the constant conflict only exacerbates the already precarious task of properly raising children. Kids need to be brought up with the proper balance of boundaries and discipline, love and support, she says. Otherwise, without a parent or a teacher to inspire and direct them, they are in danger of slipping through the cracks. "This country needs to rethink its values and priorities about which ministries are most critical," she says. "A country that understands that the Education Ministry is most important has a chance." For the women in Neveh Tirza, the Education Ministry is no longer relevant, and it is the responsibility of the Israel Prisons Service to fix what has already been broken. The roughly 100 women and men employed by the prison work to change the defeated and discouraged reality of the inmates and lead them to desire better lives. One of the best methods of rehabilitation, they say, is giving the prisoners something productive to do. After morning classes end, many of the women go to work at the factories on the prison grounds. In one building, a few dozen sit in rows at sewing machines, manufacturing clothing for a private company. Adorning the walls are stylish dresses and professional designs created by the women, despite their lack of formal training in fashion prior to incarceration. In another building, inmates are folding sections of cardboard to make boxes for a shipping company. "At least it's a reason to get up in the morning," says the prisoner in charge of the enterprise, who will be released in about a month. "I work because I don't want to think. If I stay in my cell all day, I think too much." In a smaller room, Anna is working with a dozen other women stapling and gluing folders for the Income Tax Authority. Here, the walls are covered with her beautiful, colorful drawings. Exceptionally pretty and soft-spoken, Anna, now 23, was imprisoned at 19 for manslaughter. She declines to go into details about the crime, but says her time in Neveh Tirza has transformed her life. "I've discovered who I am inside," she says. "I made so many different masks for myself throughout my life, and now finally I know who I am." In her cell in the rehabilitation block, for women who are drug-free and want to learn to stay clean, Anna displays her lively art around the room. Addicted to drugs since 15, it was only in prison that she realized her love and talent for drawing. "I may be physically trapped in here, but inside, I'm finally free," says Anna, who won't be released until 2015. "Before, I may have been free on the outside, but I was trapped on the inside." LOUNGING OUTSIDE their cellblocks, some inmates spend their days smoking and shouting at each other through the fences separating them. One heavy-set woman catcalls to a young inmate; though most of the prisoners at Neveh Tirza are heterosexual, homosexual activity is not uncommon in the prison. In block A, the presence of a journalist and photographer is enough to send the women into chaos. "Interview me! Take my picture!" they shout ferociously. "You want to hear the real story of Neveh Tirza? It's not as rosy as you think," yells an inmate with self-inflicted scars up and down her arms. With a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, she suddenly begins to cry. "It's terrible here," she sobs, staggering around the yard, unable to stand up straight. Later, she was taken to the infirmary, and a guard informed me that her erratic behavior was probably the result of the narcotics some of the women manage to smuggle into the prison, usually in their vaginas. Or, the guard surmised, it was the debilitating effects of drug withdrawal. In the five cellblocks in which the women sleep, the quarters look more like dorm rooms than the cold, bare cells seen in movies. The small rooms may sleep four or five women at a time, but the inmates can decorate and furnish the cells as they like - with everything from family photos and wall hangings to TVs and DVD players. Food and most other basic necessities can be purchased at the canteen, though the prison provides three hot meals a day. In the more privileged block aptly named Savyon, which only houses well-behaved women who are totally clean from drugs, prisoners can even use hot plates to cook their own meals. Pay phones are at their disposal and the women enjoy more freedoms than those in the four other cellblocks. Simona, 40, a resident of Savyon, has been in Neveh Tirza for 10 years. She is serving a life sentence for the murder of her boyfriend, with whom she had two children. But she calmly claims that she didn't do it. The couple met when Simona was only 15, a normal teenager from a normal family in Tel Aviv. Drugs, alcohol and abuse were nonexistent in Simona's life until she moved in with her boyfriend, Yaniv, after she finished the army. He began to beat her, and she slowly discovered he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. But like many women in abusive relationships, Simona was too weak to leave the man she loved. A few months later she became pregnant with her daughter. When the beatings didn't stop, she left him and moved back in with her parents. After she gave birth, he convinced her to come back, and the beatings continued until she filed a complaint with the police. He was arrested and held in jail, but only for a few hours, and continued to harass her until she filed a restraining order against him. But that only made Yaniv angrier. He defied the restraining order and continued to abuse her physically and emotionally. Eventually he apologized and managed to convince Simona that he was clean from drugs and alcohol. He had changed, he promised her, and she believed him. She moved back in with him and soon after became pregnant again, this time with her son. When she caught him drinking and using drugs, she realized nothing had changed, and the physical violence against her resumed. With two kids and no money, Simona was too weak to leave Yaniv and adjusted to the hell that was her life, raising the children and supporting them all on her own. And then she met Pablo, a foreign worker from Colombia. They fell in love and began an affair. "After so many years of violence and humiliation, I finally felt like a woman again, I finally felt loved," recalls Simona. But Pablo knew about Yaniv, the kids and the abuse, and wanted Simona all to himself. One night, the two were on the phone when Pablo heard Yaniv shouting at Simona in the background. Despite Simona's protests, Pablo came over, claiming he just wanted to talk, and found Yaniv in the downstairs storage room. Simona heard angry arguing and by the time she got downstairs, Pablo was gone and Yaniv lay dead on the floor, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. Simona called for an ambulance and the police, who questioned her as well as all her neighbors. Her neighbors told police of the constant abuse and about Simona's secret lover, and with a perfect motive for a crime of passion, Simona was arrested on the spot. "I was so scared for my kids and I didn't know what to do," she remembers. "I had never been arrested before, I had never done anything wrong before, so I just started to lie." Terrified of her family finding out about her affair with Pablo and of police using it as a motive for the murder, she completely denied his existence. Even when police got hold of her phone records, traced a number to Pablo's home and found papers there on which he had written her name when she tried to teach him Hebrew, Simona lied and pretended she had no idea who he was, even to her lawyer. Meanwhile, Pablo was also arrested for the murder and, convinced that Simona had ratted him out, he confessed to the crime. But Simona continued to lie. "I know now that was my mistake," she laments. "But I just wanted to go home to my kids. My mother always taught me not to hang my dirty laundry in public. I didn't want to connect myself at all to the murder by confessing to the affair. "That was my mistake. If I wouldn't have lied, I wouldn't be here now. I'd be home with my children." In court, when Pablo realized Simona had denied their affair, he retracted his earlier confession. The court didn't believe him, accepted his first confession and claimed Simona had been his accomplice. Both were sentenced to life in prison. Simona's children, now 18 and 13, live in boarding schools because her father died and her mother, who suffered a stroke, was unable to care for them. They visit Simona every month, and she cooks for them and gets the chance to be a mother for five or six hours in the special visiting room designed for inmates with children. With help from her psychologist, Simona recently came forward with what she claims to be the truth, but she has no money for a lawyer and none has volunteered to revive her case. One of Neveh Tirza's model inmates, Simona studies communications and is a writer for the prison newspaper. She spends most of her time helping the other prisoners with their problems rather than trying to deal with her own. "It's hard for me to fight again," she says with tears streaming down her face. "For me, life outside is so much scarier than life in here. Here, I'm taken care of and no one hurts me." Simona describes her life in prison as being trapped on a desert island. "You breathe, you eat, you sleep and it's hard to stay sane, but I try very hard because when I get out, I want to be the same person I was when I got in," she says. "All I want is to live with my children in peace, and for all the trouble they were caused by this not to have broken their souls." FOURTEEN THOUSAND men are incarcerated in Israeli prisons, and the vast majority are normative criminals, purposefully leading their lives outside the law. Contrary to the men, many of the 200 women in Neveh Tirza are not normative offenders, but rather victims of a series of miserable circumstances that have led them to commit crimes in order to survive. "Women are very different prisoners than men, and the treatment and therapy they require is very unique," says Sharon Liani, head of social work at Neveh Tirza. "They've suffered differently, and when a woman goes to jail it's much more of an actual crisis, because very often she has children that she's leaving behind." The prison's treatment program built by the social workers takes into account every determining factor in each woman's life, such as the presence of children, drug addiction, physical abuse or emotional problems. Based on the inmate's willingness to participate, the social workers ascertain the length and intensivity of the treatment. "We can't help women who don't want to help themselves," says Liani. "If they don't want to come to meetings or they don't want to stop doing drugs, we can't physically force them." Instead, the social workers take on the difficult tasks of slowly building a positive relationship with the inmates, gradually gaining their trust and showing them the possibility of change. Psychological treatment is involved if necessary, but Liani says the work is more about connecting to their souls and revealing their inner spirit. "Living a life of crime is not easy, it's exhausting and requires a lot of strength," she explains. "We try and show them how to take that same strength and use it to live a better life. It often starts with the small things like getting up for work in the morning and feeling useful and respected. There's a big difference between speaking about your problems and actually getting up and making a change, and that's what they need to survive in the real world." Once released from jail, the women are pretty much on their own, aside from one government-run organization responsible for caring for released prisoners, both male and female. "Our job is to find a way to rehabilitate the prisoners so they don't end up back in jail," says Eitan Velger, spokesman for the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority. Until 2001, it was the prisoner's choice whether to seek help from Prisoner Rehabilitation, but then the law was changed and early release on good behavior became dependent on having built a rehabilitation plan with a counselor. The basic and most essential component of the plan deals with where the released prisoner will reside. In Tel Aviv, the organization runs one fullservice hostel where ex-inmates can live for six months to a year, presuming there is space and they are accepted. There, counselors help women learn the basics of life outside the prison walls, find them employment and continue therapy for those addicted to drugs or alcohol. It is, however, a government-run home with strict rules and regulations, and for many ex-inmates too closely resembles prison. Another option is living at the home of a friend or relative and attending daily sessions at a rehabilitation center near their residence. Those who are the least dependent are even permitted to attend weekly or bi-weekly sessions near their homes and fully integrate back into normal life. But with limited resources and funds, this is all the organization offers, and a little under 50% of the time, the women wind up right back in prison, says Velger. "They are so unfortunate, so unhappy," he says. "We try our hardest to help them, but sometimes we can't." A fundamental problem, he says, is that many of the women sent to Neveh Tirza do not actually belong in a prison. While they need to be away from the public, they also need to be rehabilitated, and the prison atmosphere is not conducive to growing and healing the physical and emotional scars that led them to crime in the first place. "We've explained to the government that jail isn't the answer for every female criminal, and we've requested it establish a closed rehab center, but it requires money," says Velger. So for adult female criminals, there is no home other than Neveh Tirza. But behind the barbed wire and locked gates, and beneath their rough and harsh appearances, there is hope, insists Liani, because she has seen those who have finally succeeded, despite the odds. "These women have been sacrifices their entire lives, raped and molested by family members, living in cardboard boxes on the streets in the cold, and we come to them believing that they deserve a second chance at life," she says. "There are better days and worse days, but we connect to them, we cry when they cry, and ultimately, deep down, I believe they can change, and it's our job to give them the chance."