Text size

Rada stares into space. A month ago, she was released from the Neveh Tirza prison and has since been in a group for released prisoners planning to hunt for jobs.

"Employment is the main experience for us in the world," the community social worker and group's moderator, Ruthie Ofir, tells the ex-convicts, as her eyes move among the women and rest on Rada. "Our work defines us, and it is actually our entry card into the world."

Rada seems lost in thought. The moderator asks about her aims. She tries to respond, her lips move but her voice is inaudible. A grunt escapes after a few seconds, as if coming from the depths of despair. "I want to learn how not to use drugs" she says. "I'm not yet able to think in terms of work," she apologizes.

Rada, 34, is an Israeli Arab whose father was a drug addict, and whose mother was an alcoholic. From the ages of 5 to 10, she went from one institution to another and finally went to live with her grandmother. She married at age 15 to discover her husband was also an addict.

At 19, she became a heroin addict. "You can certainly imagine that I never held a regular job," she says. "I worked as a prostitute. I went with anyone who was ready to pay so I could buy drugs."

Rada was jailed for 10 months on charges of breaking and entering and using drugs. She got herself clean in jail. "This is the first time since I was 19 that I'm clean of drugs," she says. "But I don't have self-confidence. My thoughts keep escaping to the children - I have four of them, three are with foster families and one is with the grandmother. I haven't seen them for five years, but even when I was using drugs, I couldn't forget them. And now that I'm clean, there is not a minute that I don't think about them. Where they are, what they are doing, whether other children bother them because of me."

The Telem center was set up 12 years ago; its name is a Hebrew acronym for "center for employment of released women prisoners." Anat Gur, who heads the women's sector of the prisoner rehabilitation authority, says women have a more difficult time joining the labor market than men do. "Men who are released from prison are absorbed into some kind of physical work, such as carpentry, construction work, electric work, vehicles and driving, and they manage to earn good money and progress. For the women, the job world is very often another arena where they are victimized and exploited, and it isn't open to them to the same extent."

The pimp is waiting

The Israel Prisons Service estimates that 90 percent of the women in Neveh Tirza were sexually abused as children and did not receive treatment.

"We understood that they are being released from prison suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to sexual abuse that made them drop out of school and suffer from a dramatic lack of education," says Gur.

She adds: "In addition, women, even in the criminal world, are at the bottom of the ladder, in a position of exploitation. The men are the bosses - pimps, drug dealers. We realized there is a dire need to set up a center that would serve as a transit place between life in prison, between prostitution and drugs, and life in the world of work.

"These women must experience a break from that world, so that when they join the the labor market, they will not be subjected to extreme exploitation."

The process of locating women in need and getting them to join the Telem program begins three months before they are released from prison.

"Outside the gates of the prison, the pimp is already waiting for them, and he knows their release date, so it is our job to propose a rehabilitation net in an effort to halt this vicious cycle," says Orna Ormian-Rabenu, who advises released women. Men who are released, she says, "usually have a woman who is waiting and who took care of the house and raised the children while they were in jail. What is waiting for women is loneliness and rejection by society. They have to collect themselves and the children who are dispersed among institutions and foster families and try to create a new life."

Ormian-Rabenu says women prisoners are greeted by a severe cold shoulder from the world. "Society is more put off by a woman prisoner than a man who has served time, and this very often finds expression in the refusal to employ women ex-convicts as compared with a readiness to employ men. "

Lilach Ben-Moshe Ga'ash, who has been the director of the Telem center for the past eight years, says the necessary rehabilitation process is extremely long.

"Very often they don't have the basic life skills," she says. They have to be taught what some may take for granted - "trivial things like getting up in the morning, or how to take a bus and how to estimate the time to get to work. Very often they don't know how to dress for work, they can go dressed sloppily or otherwise dressed like prostitutes with net stockings, tops that don't cover their belly and garish make-up, because those are the things they have in their closets, and that is the way they were used to getting dressed."

Most of the women who participate in the Telem program sleep in a hostel for newly released women, where they get housing and supervised rehabilitation.

"Usually, until they go out to work, they survive on state-paid guaranteed income of NIS 1,500 a month, and they face difficulties in renting an apartment," says Ben-Moshe Ga'ash. The hostel provides a solution for a year. After that they go to a halfway house, with two or three ex-convicts who are partially supporting themselves, and they get used to living in the outside world.

A fix every five minutes

The workshop continues. Meital, 38, who was released three months ago, is practicing with friends the arguments she will soon present when she appears before the committee that decides whether she is ready to go out to work.

"I want to start working already," says Meital. "It's frustrating, because I feel ready..." "So ditch the workshop and start working already," one of the participants jokes.

Meital is asked what she is hoping for, and she answers: "I want to make decisions for myself. I don't want anyone to decide for me." She shows her leg, where her lover's name is tattooed. "I used to think he was my savior," she admits.

"For 16 years I did nothing with myself except use drugs, deal drugs and break the law," Meital says. She was arrested and jailed for 11 months for drug dealing. "I dealt drugs with my boyfriend, who got out of prison at the beginning of the month. This is the first time I haven't tried to contact him. I'm trying to do things differently."

Meital is a daughter of a family with many children. Her father was an alcoholic.

"He abused me physically. At the age of 14, I fled from home," she says.

When she was 21, after her father died, she started to use hard drugs. Meital and her partner sold heavy drugs in the north of the country. "When I was jailed, I was addicted to crack [cocaine], and I needed a fix every five minutes," she says. In jail she was able to get clean. "That was my first and my last jail term," she says.

Meital says that last week, she babysat the children of ex-convict women who have been working for more than a year. "That was the first NIS 40 I ever earned honestly," she says. Her eyes light up with pride. "It was exciting to work and to earn money in a clean way."

Shiri Mandelbaum, the national employment adviser for the prisoner rehabilitation authority, says the women need to be accompanied as they join the workforce, because often being a victim is what feels familiar to them and "they make slaves of themselves." She adds: "They often are used to placating people and give their all in order to prove themselves - and therefore they don't dare to rebel against an employer, even if he is exploiting them."

The powers that be at Telem make sure the women are integrated into workplaces that are known as "friendly employers." Mandelbaum says these are employers who agree to take on ex-convict women. The woman feels comfortable because she doesn't need to hide her past and, says Mandelbaum, "We check that she is employed in a non-exploitative work environment."

A job in a bakery

In the afternoon, 48-year-old Michal arrives at the Telem center. She is on her way to a job interview and has come to relieve the tension and absorb a little human warmth from the staff at Telem. Michal has lost count of how many times she has been jailed. "Maybe seven times, maybe eight," she says. "I grew up in the streets from a young age. At 23, I went to prison and started using hard drugs. Every time, they suggested to me that I go to Telem. But I refused."

Two years ago, she agreed to join the Telem program. "No one believed in me," she says. "Even I didn't believe in myself."

At first, she says, she could not get up in the morning and work for the minimum wage and take orders from a young man. "I had built up status in the criminal world - and suddenly to have to placate a young boy wasn't what I wanted."

Slowly, Michal succeeded in building a life - from scratch. "They taught me how to deal with fears, to succeed and be part of a team. Now I have been off drugs for two years, and I work full-time at a bakery with a team that likes me and moved me - from day one - with the way they trusted me. Soon, I'm moving from the halfway house to a regular apartment, and now I'm trying to get an additional job with youth at risk," she says with moist eyes. "Everything moves me," she confirms with a smile. "Without drugs, life is exciting at every step that I take."