Punishing Conditions: Inside Israel's Only Women's Prison

Haaretz reporter Vered Lee wonders what can be done to improve the abysmal environment at Neve Tirza.

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

About five years ago, I interviewed a 32-year-old inmate at Neve Tirza who had been sentenced to a 25-year prison term for murder and robbery. At the age of 13, she began using drugs, and by the time of her arrest she was addicted. In prison she stopped using drugs for the first time in her life. She reflected the victimization profile of the prisoners: a past as a girl without a childhood, a teenager who was exploited by men, the mother of a child given up for adoption.

It was heartrending to hear her story.

Slowly but surely, I realized that the fragile woman sitting opposite me had knocked on the door of an elderly woman, who trustingly opened it. She and her partner entered the apartment, beat the old woman cruelly, robbed her and stabbed her more than 30 times all over her body, killing her. Should a prisoner like her be allowed an alternative to imprisonment only because she is a woman and because prison conditions for women are inferior?

Since its inception in 1968, Neve Tirza has housed a maximum of only 226 prisoners and detainees. The low number of female prisoners is not unique to Israel. In effect, there is no country in the world in which women constitute more than 10 percent of the prison population. In many countries, women constitute 5 percent of the entire prison population, and sometimes even less. Apparently, because of their small and stable number over the years, female inmates suffer from a dual punishment.

Because the number of male prisoners is increasing from year to year, the Prison Service has created a large number of prisons that provide conditions suited to various populations: juvenile prisons, a prison for the mentally disturbed, a prison for those being weaned from drugs, and others. Neve Tirza is a tiny prison with few wings, and it crucially lacks a detention wing. The size of the cells of most of the prisoners is 13 square meters ‏(including a toilet and shower‏); each cell holds an average of six people. In other words, each prisoner has an average area of two square meters, while according to the United Nations standard, the minimum is eight square meters. Studies show that overcrowding causes an increase in violence among prisoners, as well as depression and suicides. And in fact, many of the prisoners in Neve Tirza suffer from psychological problems, and about 60 percent use psychiatric drugs.

In addition, the conditions of imprisonment prevent separation and classification: A girl of 18 who is serving her first sentence is imprisoned together with older women; detainees awaiting trial are jailed with veteran prisoners; addicts share cells with women who have never used drugs; mentally disturbed prisoners are given no appropriate solution. Neve Tirza also suffers from a shortage of professionals in the fields of psychology and drug addiction. Not only does the situation prevent rehabilitation, but it often provides a fast track to an increase in criminal behavior. The “revolving door” phenomenon, meaning the rate of recidivism, is presently 70 percent; this reinforces the sense of an urgent need to act to improve the female prisoners’ conditions.

Many models of female imprisonment are now being examined worldwide, and there is definitely room to examine and improve existing conditions at Neve Tirza. The alternative to imprisonment must be examined critically, and if it is approved we must make sure that it doesn’t become comprehensive. If such a program is also expanded to include prisoners serving long sentences, will it include, for example, Sigalit Haimovich, convicted of murdering Assaf Stierman, who was walking through a grove minding his own business? In their decision, the judges described the crime, committed in 1996, as “a murder for the sake of murder. A cruel and abominable act of wickedness for its own sake.”

In addition, if we examine a model of alternatives to imprisonment, wouldn’t it be fair to include men as well? Why restrict it to women only and promote it only as a gender issue? After all, the connection between sexual abuse and crime is also common among male prisoners, in high percentages. In addition, among the population of male prisoners, too, there are many cases of mentally disturbed and homeless people, minors ‏(Jews and Palestinians‏) and the sick, whose prison conditions are liable to exacerbate their conditions.

Dr. Tomer Einat of the criminology department in Bar Ilan University: “With great caution, I say that in terms of ethics, the state should use alternatives to imprisonment for both men and women. At the same time, we can’t ignore considerations that must guide the system and the state and society to some degree or other: There’s a victim, and there’s the dangerous nature of the prisoner, there’s a feeling that cannot be ignored and that is legitimate, of social revenge, or a need to punish the person who harms us, and there is a social desire to send a message of deterrence. I think that if a judicial system offers an alternative to imprisonment, and not imprisonment, because a person expressed regret and has a history of victimhood, that would be criticized. The public won’t tolerate it, the media won’t tolerate it, and it won’t pass.”

How would you improve the situation of the prisoners in Neve Tirza?

“When it comes to Israel, I prefer to quickly move the Neve Tirza prison to a new location and introduce cardinal changes that would improve the lives of the inmates. Because today, prisoners who suffer from serious mental disturbances, who should not be locked up in a prison, are imprisoned along with others, and without proper treatment. A very large number of the prisoners should be diagnosed and moved to psychiatric hospitals or to a supportive hostel that will give them the treatment they deserve and that is ethically suited to the world view of everyone in the Western world.

“They should choose a new complex with open spaces, an exercise yard, cells fit for human habitation and not neglected as they are today in Neve Tirza prison. The prisoners who are mothers must be allocated a separate, holistic wing, with a large yard that will be adapted for children, and will include games, and make long visits possible. Their families waiting outside the prison must receive much more support and guidance, so that during the period when the mother of the family is in prison, the family unit won’t fall apart and the children won’t pay a high price.

“In addition, we have to pay attention to health problems. Most of the women in Neve Tirza worked as prostitutes and have a background of drug addiction, so that their health has been badly neglected − they suffer from sexual diseases, severe dental problems due to prolonged drug use, serious eating disorders. The solution provided by the prison for this problem at present is meager in budgetary terms, and there is a need to increase it and to invest in that.”

According to Dr. Einat, already now there is an urgent need to significantly expand the relevant professional slots for therapeutic manpower in the prison. “Today there are six slots for social workers, three-quarters of a slot for a psychiatrist who only distributes medicine, half a slot for a narcologist. And not a single slot for a medical specialist, a dentist, a gynecologist and a psychologist, although the prison has become a kind of psychiatric hospital.

“That’s an intolerable situation. In such a situation, it’s impossible to administer in-depth, meaningful and multisystemic therapy for the prisoners, and that’s a situation that must be changed as soon as possible.”

Dr. Einat offers another solution: to lower the security level of the prison. “Since there is only one women’s prison, it includes all the criminals sent by the court in one prison complex, and there’s an absurd situation − that it’s a maximum-security facility. In effect, only 10 percent of the prisoners have been convicted of crimes justifying a maximum-security prison. More than 65 percent of the inmates are women who were sentenced to imprisonment in a medium-security facility. Conduct in a medium-security prison is more relaxed, there’s a different visiting policy, behavior inside the prison is freer. The moment there’s a more relaxed atmosphere, there is less violent interaction among the prisoners. That’s why there has to be a separation between two wings with differing security levels, with all that entails. There’s no point in punishing all the prisoners and imposing strict prison conditions on all of them.”

Credit: Limor Edrey
A cell in Neve Tirza. Each prisoner has an average of two square meters of space.Credit: Limor Edrey