Is It Time to Shut the Only Women's Prison in Israel?

Bili Moscona-Lerman
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Bili Moscona-Lerman

Only last year, at age 30, did D. begin to understand the pieces that make up the puzzle of her life. She was recently discharged from the Neve Tirza prison and is presently living in a rehabilitative hostel for former female prisoners. There is nothing she would like more than to be photographed, with her name in the caption, stand before you and point to the guilty parties: her parents and her brother, who live nearby. Only the fear that her young children will discover her name on the Internet a few years from now prevents her from revealing herself.

She was born in Petah Tikva and remembers herself as a rebellious child of alcoholic parents who grew up in a home rife with quarrels and shouting, where she was invisible to everyone around. At the age of 10, she decided on her own to work as a dishwasher in a wedding hall. No one at home stopped her from going out to work in the evening; on the contrary, her parents and siblings would rummage through her schoolbag looking for money.

One evening when she was 11, her older brother came home beaten and bloody and told her he was in trouble with loan sharks. She was frightened at the sight of the blood, and he told her she could help save him. She agreed at once, without asking any questions. The next night, after the dishwashing shift, he picked her up in his car and told her, “You’ll help me, and I’ll also teach you how to enjoy yourself.” They drove to an isolated grove at the edge of the city, where a row of cars with their lights on were waiting.

“A party,” she thought to herself. A few minutes later she was placed on a frayed child’s blanket that had been tossed on the back seat of the car; her brother taught her everything in 10 minutes. Behind him was a row of men who got out of the cars and stood one behind the other in front of the blanket. When one finished, the next one began. One car after another, night after night.
For an entire month. That is how her elder brother paid his debt to the loan sharks − with the body of his 11-year-old sister.

What followed was no better. To stop her from telling the story, he told their alcoholic mother that she, his sister, had forced him, had asked for it. “Whore,” screamed the woman who had given birth to her. “I knew in the end you’d be a whore,” and threw her out of the house into the street.

D. was taken in by an older man and later gave birth to his children and built a family. But occasionally she would be overcome by uncontrollable fury and would mercilessly beat anyone who was near her. It made no difference if it was her husband or her young children.

The last arrest order against her was due to an attempt to attack her partner, who turned her in to the police. Later, she landed in prison and subsequently returned to the street, prostitution, drugs, then back to prison, until finally she was discharged. When she received psychological therapy at the rehabilitation hostel, it became clear that whenever she saw a member of her family, her brother or her mother, on the street, in the bank or the supermarket, she would be overcome several hours later by an unbridled attack of fury and violence. It was years before she connected these sudden outbreaks of violence by a 30-year-old woman to the little girl who, two decades before, had lain, night after night, helpless and terrified, on a blanket in the back of a car parked in a dark grove.

‘A second holocaust’

Dr. Anat Gur, a psychotherapist, head of the women’s branch of the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority and author of the book “Mufkarot: Nashim Beznut” ‏(Women Abandoned‏) sat next to me recently at a conference at Beit Berl college. Suddenly she said to me in a low voice: “The Neve Tirza prison is a concentration camp for women who have been victims of incest.”

Her comment surprised me. I know her as a restrained person, not the type to exaggerate in order to dramatize. “Ninety-nine percent of the women serving time in the Neve Tirza prison,” she continued in the same quiet tone, “experienced a holocaust in their childhood. Neve Tirza, which is a very cruel place for women, causes them to experience a second holocaust, for the simple reason that it recreates the trauma. That’s why the Neve Tirza prison for women should be closed and replaced with an alternative to imprisonment,” was her firm conclusion.

Neve Tirza is a strict prison where conditions are harsh. It houses 220 female inmates, who enter and leave as through a revolving door ‏(see box‏). Men’s prisons in Israel house 27,000 prisoners, a dramatic, almost inconceivable difference in the size of the population, which affects conditions.

While all the women are imprisoned in one facility, men serve their time in different facilities, depending on the seriousness of the crime, length of the sentence, whether this is their first time behind bars or a repeat offense, whether the prisoner may be dangerous or whether he will be referred to an open, rehabilitative facility. Minors are not imprisoned together with adults, and detainees are placed in detention centers, not with those who have been sentenced.

Gur: “Since there are so few female criminals in Israel, there is only one prison, and it is run according to the most stringent level of security. As a result, a woman who is sentenced for the first time because she stole food from a supermarket is imprisoned under conditions that would be inconceivable for a nonviolent man. Women accused of petty crimes, who are more vulnerable to begin with, are imprisoned in a harsh prison. The harshest one.”

The Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority is presently composing a document regarding an alternative to imprisonment for pregnant inmates, which will be submitted to the Justice Minister, the minister of internal security and the minister of welfare and social affairs. It was formulated by Abir Bachar, the director of the Legal Clinic for Prisoners’ Rights at the University of Haifa, and is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which determined that separating young children from their mother causes long-term developmental problems.

Another reason for submitting the document is the trend of creating alternatives to imprisonment for women, which is becoming widely accepted in the West in order to reduce the number of women prisoners. The Legal Clinic does not suggest sweeping alternatives to imprisonment for every inmate who is pregnant or a mother, but advocates adopting the idea of an alternative in legal arrangements and establishing clear criteria to be decided by experts.

The recommendation is for a pilot project with women serving short sentences and slowly extending it to women with long sentences who have been found suitable for a rehabilitation facility. The document, which is to become a draft bill, refers to statistics indicating that more than 90 percent of the women in the prison have a history of incest and abandonment by the family; 70 percent are mothers; and 40 percent have preschool children. The families of women in prison fall apart; their children suffer from depression and are marked as the next generation of criminals.

The financial aspect has also been taken into account: Imprisoning a mother costs the state NIS 128,000 annually, while an alternative to prison in a hostel costs NIS 48,000.

The question of why women commit far fewer crimes than men has been a subject of interest to criminologists: Is it a social issue, is it related to participation in the job market outside the home, inborn traits, physical strength?

Anat Gur examined the differences within the group of criminals. “Women tend to take responsibility for ‘crimes’ that are not theirs,” she says. “From childhood, women are culturally expected to protect, care for, cover for and serve the men in the family, while waiving their own rights. When we look at female criminals, as a group they are far less violent than men. Women don’t participate in the profitable world of crime. Most of the women who end up in prison are sentenced for petty crimes such as theft, forging checks and drug use.”

Etti Alon, who a decade ago was sentenced to 17 years in prison for embezzling NIS 250 million from the Trade Bank, was working for her brother, who got into trouble due to gambling. Many of the female drug runners are not independent dealers, but were exploited by the man they lived with.

Gur believes that for female criminals who have been victims of exploitation and abuse, prison is more dangerous. “The emotional makeup of women is not suited to this type of prison, because women have what is called a ‘relational attitude,’ in other words, a need for relationships. The masculine ‘sense of self’ is stable, separate, more autonomous and individual. Women, on the other hand, need ties and contacts. When women are placed in solitary confinement, they have far less emotional stamina than men. Women in solitary confinement have set fire to themselves and hanged themselves. They do horrifying things because their soul is unable to survive abuse of this kind. Why is it so traumatic for women? Because imprisonment reactivates the elements of the original abuse.

“And what is so painful,” Gur continues, “is that more than 70 percent of the women in prison are mothers of more than one child. When a father goes to prison, the family unit continues to exist without him. The Prison Service also makes it easier for men and imprisons them in a facility near their home. On the other hand, in Neve Tirza, located in Ramle, you can find an inmate who was brought there from Be’er Sheva and has three children. There is nobody to bring the children to visit; she loses contact with them. Both distance and poverty lead to placing the children in alternative arrangements. This separation causes an emotional breakdown in most of the women.

“In that sense, they are paying a tremendous price that men don’t pay. When a male offender orders his wife to bring the children to visit, she will travel with them by bus from Kiryat Shmona to Arad and bring them to the prison. Who will bring the female prisoner’s children from Kiryat Shmona to Neve Tirza? Reality clearly demonstrates that nobody will.”

Every day, rape

“At the age of 20 I killed someone,” says B. in halting Hebrew. She lives in the room next to D. in the hostel. “He was a friend of my father’s from the time I was a baby. They used to drink together. He lived next to us and was in our house all the time. I went to visit him as I always did. I was sitting in the kitchen. Suddenly he touched me. He moved my blouse. I didn’t let him. He’s an older, disabled man with a cane. He took his cane and hit me. I took the cane from his hand and hit him on the head. Forcefully. He fell backward on the spot. I called the police. When they came I said, ‘I killed a man who tried to kill me.’ I went to prison, and there a new hell began.”

B. says that the negative experiences that typify her life began with her first rape at the age of 10, committed by a friend of her father’s. “It happened under the synagogue in Kiryat Ata. The rapist threatened me and another boy from the class with a knife to our necks, and said: ‘I’ll kill you if you talk.’ And that way, every day on the way home from school, every day there was rape. My parents didn’t know Hebrew. We immigrated from Ukraine. Mom and Dad were out of the house all day, and in the evening Dad would sit with those friends and drink. When they returned home, I was always guilty of something, there were always beatings.

"In the house there was Grandma, a dog and a cat. During the Gulf War the neighbor grabbed me, and there was a siren, and after he did what he did I didn’t return home. When I returned, Dad hit me mercilessly without asking. That was the first time I realized that there was something wrong with my life, that not all children live like that. Suddenly I realized. As though I knew it from inside. Today I know there was a black hell there, but I don’t know how to put the pieces together, I don’t remember exactly what happened there. There are lots of separate black pieces. I remember that children older than me abused me in school.

“Then there were shouts and beatings, and Mom and Dad divorced. I began living the life of a zombie. Everything was secrets and lies. At the age of 12, I started smoking. At the age of 13, I started working as a waitress and going out with drug dealers. At the age of 15, I went out to the street. I slept in people’s homes, until the incident of Dad’s friend, whom I used to go to because he was my home after they threw me out. He asked me to call him, and suddenly he tore my blouse and hit me with the stick. I got up and hit him back and he died. They led me from his house in handcuffs and told me I had broken his skull.

“I was sentenced to 12 years and served eight. Nobody came to testify on my behalf, that I had acted in self defense − because I had a past of drugs, prostitution and assaulting policemen. Nobody came to visit, to say a word. That’s how it was day after day. I awoke from the shock of my life only after I entered the hostel and began rehab.”

From incest to crime

In 2003, Ryan Bishop, a professor of anthropology who studied prostitution, wrote: “You have to [visit the Thai sex industry]. You have to do it. You have to go there the way you have to visit Dachau.” To this statement we can add the data, taken from a 2006 report of the UN Secretariat, to the effect in every class of 30 students, four female students are victims of incest.

“Sexual abuse of children is singled out as the ‘black plague,’” says Gur. The girls who have experienced the worst abuse and neglect are the ones who will deteriorate into crime, prostitution and addiction, and that is the base from which they land in prison.”

Incest takes place in upscale Ramat Aviv just as in lower-class Kiryat Malachi, regardless of the sociological profile of the family. “Incest is defined as a serious sexual attack by someone close or an authority figure for the child. An uncle, grandfather, brother, stepfather, et al. A sexual assault coming from someone close who has access to the child,” says Gur.

“And if you ask why certain girls who were victims of incest grew up to be university professors, social workers or doctors, and others ended up at Neve Tirza, the reason is the difference in the severity of the sexual attack and the question of whether the child was forced to take to the streets.

“Women who will end up at Neve Tirza experienced serious and sadistic sexual assaults at a young age, accompanied by harsh neglect and abandonment. A patient of mine, whose father abused her sexually, received loving and nurturing treatment from her mother. The sexual attack left a profound mark on her, but she didn’t become a criminal, because part of the home functioned.

“In my doctoral thesis I studied the sexual abuse of girls and found that it leads to crime, prostitution and addiction. The moment she is transformed from a child in the family to a sex slave, her consciousness undergoes a process that in professional lingo is called ‘disassociation’; the soul separates from the body and denies the abuse. There is a wealth of evidence of girls who say that they imagined they were birds, flowers or other girls at the time they were being abused. It’s a survival mechanism that enables the girl to continue living, and to love her father, brother, uncle or their friends. That the abuser isn’t really abusing, but loves her. Pimps quickly identify this ability to disassociate, and subject the girls and young women they have picked up to the same pattern of abuse they are familiar with from home: a combination of ‘love,’ terror, violence and rape, a technique of total control that turns the young girl or woman into a willing victim.”

In her book “Trauma and Recovery,” Judith Lewis Herman of the Harvard University Medical School, a prominent researcher of victims of violence, says that we, too, as a society, experience disassociation regarding girls who experienced incest, went on to prostitution and find themselves in Neve Tirza, when society identifies them as criminals who want to make easy money, who don’t want to make an effort and work like the rest of us, and finally, that this is their free choice. That’s what we continually repeat to ourselves.
A gender study of the Israeli judicial system, written about a decade ago by attorney Rachel Don Yehia and Dr. Rina Bogoch of Bar Ilan University, clearly indicated that in trials of sexual violence, the female victims are discriminated against by female judges.

Many of the male judges also discriminate against these women, describing a 9-year-old girl, a victim of sexual assault, as “having a permissive nature,” for example, or when they blame her for initiating the meetings and claiming that she enjoyed them ‏(Judge Zion Kapach, in a verdict in 2009‏), or when they say “The girl complained about her father’s actions only at the age of 18, because she enjoyed his behavior” ‏(Judge Aharon Aminoff, 2006‏). And these are only a few examples taken from the recently published book, “Rape Stories in the Court,” by criminologist Dr. Irit Negbi.

“As a society,” says Gur, “we are not merely passive collaborators. We actually abandon the girls. By that I’m referring to the nature of our society as a masculine, aggressive, authoritarian society, which provides a basis for the increase of sexual assaults on girls ‏(as well as boys‏). How could fathers, brothers or uncles even think of raping a 3-year-old girl, we ask? Clinical studies demonstrate that these men are not necessarily mentally disturbed alcoholics.
“The process that separates people from their humanity is the process that makes abuse possible: This is a type of thinking that sees the girl and the woman as property, as an object that belongs to the man and is subject to him; he can do whatever he wants with it. In such cases, there is no real understanding of the damage it causes. I want to believe that if some of the fathers understood what a terrible crime they are committing, some would abstain.”

Prof. Sarah Ben David, a clinical criminologist who worked at Neve Tirza for many years, doesn’t agree with the alternative to arrest recommended by the Legal Clinic. “One of Dr. Anat Gur’s claims is that most of the female prisoners were victims. In a study I did a few years ago, it turned out that most of the male prisoners also were sexually abused, but nobody studied the subject because the axiom is that men are violent and women are victims. In principle, I agree that a large percentage of the women in prison shouldn’t be there because they aren’t dangerous, but a large percentage of the women who use drugs could be dangerous.

“In addition, if we focus on society rather than on the female prisoners, the purpose of punishment − aside from revenge and deterrence − is to express the society’s boundaries, what the society considers a serious offense. If we give up punishment and imprisonment, we’ll be saying that women can do whatever they like, commit any crime, and we don’t consider it serious. And I see that as anti-feminization, because it lowers the value of women to the level of children who cannot be punished. And I don’t agree with that idea.”

Gur agrees with Ben David’s claim regarding the history of abuse of male prisoners, but she says there is a substantial difference in the behavior patterns of male and female victims. “The pattern of adult women is that of a victim. On the other hand, men who were sexually abused become violent. They assume the roles of the attacker and become criminals, rapists and offenders. And that’s why imprisonment in its present format is suited to dealing with male violence and is not suited to the pattern of female victimhood.”

The Prison Service rehabilitation department’s unit for alternatives to imprisonment said in response to the article: “To the best of our knowledge, the court does not hasten to send women to prison and exhausts various alternatives before doing so. But there are situations of serious crimes or recidivism that require imprisonment. A solution in the context of the community is vital and important, but it should be emphasized that the condition for the success of any intervention program is the women’s suitability, their personality traits and their behavior and cooperation. Therefore, an alternative to imprisonment may not suit some of the women due to background, behavior, the danger they represent and the severity of the crimes, and the prison framework would be the suitable place for them. The Prison Service is also preparing to build a new women’s prison.

“As part of the plan, attention is being paid to creating a proper infrastructure for the lives of the children of the prisoners inside the prison, to minimize future damage.”

Dr. Anat Gur ‏(center‏) with former prisoners at the rehabilitation hostel. “The Neve Tirza prison is a concentration camp for victims of incest.”Credit: Limor Edrey
Inside Neve Tirza Prison.Credit: Limor Edrey