While the vast majority of inmates at the Neve Tirza women's prison are drug addicts from violent and abusive families, there has recently been an increase in white-collar prisoners - educated, sophisticated people who once led relatively normative lives

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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Vered Lee
Vered Lee

In the classroom in the school building of the Neve Tirza women's prison, S. is leafing through some textbooks.

"The semester starts soon and I have no idea how many students I'll have in the class I'm teaching. It all depends on how many the court system sends," she says with a smile. "In the Neve Tirza 'academy' there are 18 students in each class and they have to be taught Hebrew at a basic level, like in the lower grades. There are always some women who are illiterate."

From one end of the classroom, a new student, a gaunt woman whose right wrist is scored with fresh marks of attempted suicide, regards the teacher S. with a glassy stare.

If not for S.'s brown prison uniform, one could easily take her to be a member of the Israel Prison Service staff. The difference between her and most of the other prisoners at Neve Tirza is obvious at first glance: She looks quite normal (lacking the "heroin chic" look that is so common in the prison, where 70 percent of the inmates are drug addicts ). She speaks clearly and articulately, using a high literary level of Hebrew, is well-mannered and exudes gentleness.

In prison, where all the inmates rise at 6 A.M. for a new day that ends with lights out at 10 P.M., S. has created a busy daily schedule for herself: "I teach Hebrew, I help the professionally trained teacher who's preparing prisoners for matriculation exams, I work in the kitchen and I take part in the Katef project" - refering to a program that goes by a Hebrew acronym that stands for strength, hope and action, which helps inmates with psychological problems.

In recent years, the general profile of the prisoners at Neve Tirza has been changing. The vast majority are still drug addicts whose life stories are a familiar chronicle of growing up in violent and abusive households, from which they emerge either into institutions or onto the streets and into the drugs-prostitution-crime realms, involving endless stints in and out of prison. But alongside these prisoners, there has also been a notable increase in white-collar inmates: women who led relatively normative lives - wives and mothers, all with at least a high school education, and many with a college education. Women who would be categorized as able to function in society. They arrive in jail after spending years as teachers, bankers, senior secretaries, account managers, doctors and lawyers.

The age of these prisoners is also higher than the average. Most are first arrested at age 35 or over, most often on charges of fraud, forgery or tax evasion. A smaller number are typically convicted of dealing drugs (not for personal use ), trafficking in illegal workers, running a brothel, manslaughter and murder. The prison service and Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority define these women as sophisticated inmates. Most consider their incarceration a one-time slip-up and seek to disassociate themselves from their crime as much as possible.

Throughout the conversation with S., a 40-year-old mother of three who recently began divorce proceedings, one question hovers and remains unanswered: What really led her to commit embezzlement over a period of five years at her workplace, to the tune of NIS 3 million, without the knowledge of her husband or anyone close to her - and when she didn't really need this money? Unlike other prisoners convicted of similar crimes, she readily admits her guilt and talks about it openly.

S. was sentenced to five years in prison and has served two so far. She clearly feels remorse and is trying to compensate for commiting a crime by helping weaker prisoners, but above all she is trying honestly to plumb her soul to understand what pushed her to do this.

"The day I came to court to hear the verdict, I said goodbye to my children in the morning and promised to return in the afternoon. I was sure there would be time to go home and get ready and then go to jail, but the judge said straight away: 'You're going to prison right now.' I clearly remember that despite the feeling that the sky was crashing down, I also felt a sense of liberation from everything. I felt like the prison sentence was saving me, that it was cleansing me."

S. says she led a fairly ordinary life, and ticks off the list of stops along the way: "preschool, Scouts, graduating high school with honors, army service as an officer, bachelor's degree in economics and business administration. The home I grew up in was a normal one: parents who had a good relationship, mother a tax consultant, father self-employed. We were comfortable financially and it wasn't a violent home. But I remember there were high expectations of me as the eldest daughter. Without words, you're given the message that you're supposed to be perfect and excel at everything. When I look back today, I understand that I had to hide some things, like grades that weren't so good, in order to please everyone. I never rebelled. Never lost control. Never wore eyeliner, never smoked a cigarette, never got drunk, never went to nightclubs. My whole life, I never did anything like that, and always had everything under control."

At age 22, S. started working for a financial institution. "My father had just died and suddenly the sense of perfection fell apart. The family, the parents who lived together - that was shattered. Suddenly I have a mother who's living alone, little brothers, and I'm the eldest and the expectation increased that I should be the one to function. To be there. To take care of things. In this situation, I took control: It was my choice and I took control over everything. In this 'frozen' state, I married at age 26, had three children and got ahead at work. When you're in a situation in which your world falls apart, society expects you to go on, to succeed and to meet everyone's expectations to be a perfect woman, a perfect mother, with a career.

"It's only now, in prison, that I can dare to say how stifled I felt and how that feeling was accompanied with so much emptiness. In those years, I wasn't in psychotherapy at all. My whole daily grind was a pursuit of emptiness. Wedding, marriage, children, career. I chased after things and when I got them, I felt it didn't fulfill anything."

How did you seem to the people around you?

S.: "A casual observer wouldn't have noticed that I had this void in my life or that I was going through something like this, because I was functioning brilliantly. I was an acrobat: I got promoted at work, I was a model mother, an amazing friend, a good woman. I got up at six in the morning, read the financial papers, was at the height of my career, and I would bake a cake for my kid's birthday and help a friend out with a loan. But the deeper the void gets, the trickier the acrobatics you need to do. You end up forgetting yourself, you negate yourself. All day long you're just giving to others and doing for others and this inner void remains."

The embezzlement began when S. was 30 and was spread out over five years.

How did you manage to conceal the embezzlement of such sums over such a long period of time?

"You lie all the time, create a double world. The embezzlement is just a small part of the whole thing. The trouble is all the other things that derive from it. There is so much lying. And you have to know how to control the lie. If you lied and transferred money and someone is suspicious, you have to be alert and 'amend' the lie in a way that will allay his suspicions, and that only expands the fraud."

Did you become an expert in self-control?

"I always stayed in control. I was in a state of tension. High adrenaline. Fast pulse. On days when I wasn't working, I let myself relax a bit, but even then there were still lies, smaller ones."

This is a crime that requires some sophistication.

"Sophistication is a word I detest now. This fraud was born from my ability to hide things. To hide means walking a fine line; it doesn't necessarily stem from a desire to lie. But it develops from there and I had the ability and skill to manipulate and plot and lead a person who questions something in another direction."

Did the fraud seep into your home life, too?

"The stealing is always there. You try to create a separation between home life and work, but it's always there. Of course it seeps into life at home. If I'm being dishonest at work and then I come home and get a call from work asking about something, and then my husband asks about it - then I lie to him, too."

'Dark side'

S. says she got carried away to the point where she felt she couldn't stop. "I know it sounds sick but it's a kind of control, it's the dark side of the acrobatics, the dangerous side. It's something that makes me hate myself, it's not something that makes me feel good. It's really a bad place, with lots of self-hatred, lots of self-flagellation. It's a huge fraud that grows and grows to three million and the fear is tremendous, to where you're scared to death to look in the mirror and state what you've done. But I would keep going because maybe somehow it will all work out. I'd fool myself, telling myself that maybe when it's all over, I'll reveal everything and it will be okay. There's this desire for things to work out. For some outside force to save you from this bad place. You realize that you're losing control and that you need outside intervention to put an end to it."

S. and her husband both earned good salaries. "We weren't lacking for money," she confirms. What tempted her to start, she says, was a sense of "boredom and emptiness" that led to "a desire to rebel and to experience the thrill of losing control, alongside the feeling of controlling the lie, so that it's hidden from everyone and becomes your own personal secret."

What did you do with the money?

"I spent it immediately. That kind of money gets used up really fast and you don't even know where it went. I didn't save any of it. Now I have debts and lawsuits for a million shekels and I got my husband into trouble, too. But even so, I'm happy that I don't have any of that tainted money anymore, even if I left scorched earth behind me."

After two years in prison, her marriage is coming apart. "I have good communication with my husband, and he's an exemplary parent. We had talked in the past about separating, but when my crime became known and I went to prison, it definitely speeded up the process," she admits.

What was it like for you to enter prison?

"It's a hard transition between two worlds. You want to close your eyes and not wake up until the time passes, or do something to make the time pass more quickly. But I worked on myself and after a few months I understood that I'm here now and I ought to use this time to understand what happened to me - to figure out where I'm sick inside, what this sickness is exactly and how to cure it. Little by little, things have been falling into place. I take whatever psychological treatment is available here - talks, group therapy, anything that will help me.

"The hardest thing is that I'm not with my children and not getting to see them grow up. All the rest? So I'll be divorced, and soon I won't have a house. That's not hard for me."

How do people on the outside treat you?

"The relationship with the family is good and there is support. After years of hiding things, I felt the people in my life had to know. So friends are still coming to grips with the whole story. The people closest to me know everything. At the preschool, the elementary school. My kids know and their friends know. Today I'm in a situation where it's impossible to hide anything. It serves no purpose and the truth will set you free. After years of hiding, I just felt that people had to know. There was a time when some of the people around me were angry and complaining; for a long time I understood them. Today I think I don't owe anyone any explanations, aside from my close family."

Do you feel that society judges you more harshly than the drug addict or prostitute who's imprisoned with you?

"Certainly. It's not just the judging. It's the anger: What the hell was she lacking? What was her problem? After all, I didn't steal money in order to buy medicine or to escape poverty. On the face of it, I had everything. So society's anger at me is particularly charged. I'm a threat to bourgeois society. They see that it could happen to anyone. I arouse fear.

"I hold a mirror up to the bourgeois society that likes to think that women from a lower class can slip into crime because they need money for drugs, but they can't figure out how a woman from their world could end up in prison. Wasn't her life comfortable enough? Could she have possibly felt unfulfilled by the competition and the pursuit for prestige? What's wrong with chasing after marriage-children-career? Could it be that Neve Tirza isn't just the backyard with drug addicts in it, but a prison that any woman from any walk of life, even a senior executive, could end up in due to mental neglect?

Masked inmates

"We're seeing more and more women from the upper middle class - mostly because of fraud and tax evasion," says Ronit Matzliah, commander of the Neve Tirza prison. "In the past, Hava Yaari and Aviva Granot stood out in the social makeup of the prison. [In 1985, Yaari, ex-wife of Channel 1 Arab affairs reporter and an investment consultant at a bank, and Granot, who owned a pharmacy, together murdered tourist Mela Melavsky, after Melavsky discovered that Ya'ari had emptied her bank account]. Today there are many more teachers, bankers, lawyers and doctors. Of course, this points to a process that's occurring in society, because the prison is a reflection of society, but the courts have also become stricter in meting out punishment."

From everything you know, does their crime stem from economic motivations?

Matzliah: "I wouldn't attribute it to the economic situation. Some of them didn't have any financial problems at all. Some who claim that was the reason perhaps want to hide behind this headline because it's easier for them. But they can't really explain why, after they obtained the sum needed to cover a debt, they just kept on and on."

Is their background different from most of the other prisoners?

"When I look at women who've been convicted of crimes of fraud then the answer is no. When you talk with them you see similarities. It's true they haven't come from destructive homes and everything looks great from the outside, but they put on a mask and spent years hiding a difficult reality while they seemed to function superbly. These women were going through something mentally and no one saw. They got to crime as a result of family neglect or family trauma. You can find the death of a father, a domineering mother, an oppressive and rigid attitude toward women, a lack of attention, aggressive control by parents, very strict boundaries and everything else inside the beautiful middle-class homes of career-oriented parents who are very cold and neglectful."

And how do their families react?

"You must understand that the prisoners who come from a background of prostitution, drugs and poverty arrive without family from the outset. They are single parents, there's no man around and if there is then he's a pimp who only takes an interest the day they get released. Women from a white-collar background who are given long sentences arrive in prison married and as mothers, and they need to preserve the family unit that's been left behind by means of phone calls, visits and letters. The extended family - parents, siblings, children - for the most part are supportive and visit. But when the sentence is long, they often lose the family unit: Husbands don't wait, they want to get on with life and not be connected to the crime that the woman committed. But with women given shorter sentences, of a year or a year and a half, the husbands are somehow still in the picture."

How do they manage to fit in here?

"It's not easy to get along 24 hours a day with women, but they adjust. There are some who see the incarceration as corrective. They say: I stole, so I want to give back by giving of myself and not just being in prison, and they get involved in all sorts of projects. They are important figures for the weaker prisoners. There are some who feel that the prison sentence saved their lives. They say their earlier life was hell, they talk about how they got to the point where they weren't enjoying the crime and really wanted to get caught, were just waiting for someone to uncover the fraud.

"On the other hand, there are women who are just the same in prison as they were on the outside. They totally deny their crime, have all kinds of excuses for it, they're here by mistake, by coincidence. The sense of entitlement is always there and it doesn't matter what you give them. They are condescending in an ugly way to the drug-addicted prisoners from a low socioeconomic background, they provoke them and call them 'junkies' and 'mental cases' and are also condescending to the prison staff. They see themselves as college grads who just happened to end up here, and think the warden is just nasty and all the rest of the staff are stupid. And there are complaints like 'Why isn't there a swimming pool here?' It gets so that you just have to take a deep breath and realize that not every inmate has fully internalized her situation."

'Surreal and touching'

About 200 female inmates are incarcerated in Neve Tirza. Wings A and B are referred to as the "dirty" wings: This is where the drug addicts are kept, for whom imprisonment is a kind of forced rehab. The cells are tiny and stifling, and reek with the smell of food the women cook to enhance their lunches. There is a constant racket from televisions, over which the shouts of the inmates can sometimes be heard.

The white-collar inmates are held in a building referred to as "Savyon," which is designated for prisoners who are not drug users and do not constitute discipline problems. There are 55 inmates. The cells are more spacious and, strolling through the wing, one can see babies being raised here by their mothers, plus one multi-generational cell that is home to a grandmother, a young mother and an infant; the women were sent to prison for their part in a case of fraud that took place in the United States.

The commander of this wing for the past seven months is Oshrat Bashari, who has 13 years of experience at Neve Tirza. For two years she was in charge of Wing B.

"I know the underworld, and since the move to Savyon, the upper world, too," she laughs. "As commander of the wing I feel the difference between the populations: In the drug addicts' wing, you have to ask, demand, that they shower and clean the room. In the Savyon wing, I've never had to say anything about cleanliness. They go out to work in the morning in the prison facility having showered and groomed themselves, leaving behind a neat room, like mothers leaving the house to go to work, just the way I leave my house."

Bashari says that while the inmates in the "dirty" wing openly talk about their lives, the white-collar prisoners are less forthcoming.

"They know they were classified by society as normative and want to preserve this mask," she says. "If one tells you her crime derived from violence toward her at home when she was growing up, or from economic oppression or violence that her husband used against her, then she'll be revealing things that, in her mind, bring her closer to the women in the drug addicts' wing. But when you really get into a deep conversation with them, you find that there was some void that made her take the key and open the safe. But if you look at her day-to-day functioning, at the routine, you won't notice anything amiss. You just see a 'normative,' ordinary girl who doesn't understand why she's here."

Bashari says these women are model prisoners. "They're disciplined, they've been in the Scouts, the army, university - they're all used to frameworks and to functioning fully as a parent. In the beginning, it's a difficult adjustment for them here. The shock is apparent, there are fears, because it's a foreign world to them. They've never encountered the criminal world before this. There are some who even after six months come into my office crying because it's not what they're used to and not what they know."

"One day an inmate came and asked: Why isn't it ever quiet in here in the afternoon? Because she was used to sleeping at that hour. I explained to her that she is in prison and that's the way it is. You can't keep 60 female inmates quiet; this isn't a library. It's a dynamic, living place. And sometimes you see them just before they're about to go out on a furlough, debating aloud - 'No, I wore this dress last time, I need something else to wear' - and you're in shock. But you understand that these are difficult situations, that they're used to a different kind of life and they bring those habits in here. Sometimes it seems quite surreal and other times it's very touching."

Bashari has also noticed the contemptuous attitude of some of her inmates. "There are prisoners from this sector who don't know how to accept other kinds of people. It's hard for them to accept they're in the same place with a population of addicts. But then we also see an inmate who buys things every month from the canteen for an addicted inmate, and we see women who volunteer and are supportive and want to work with the women from the tougher prison population, those who aren't used to having a framework, who don't know how to learn, who aren't used to being told what to do."

A million shekels

T. works as a librarian in the prison library. On the shelves are works by Charles Bukowski and Mikhail Bulgakov ("The Master and Margarita" ), alongside less surprising titles like Kafka's "The Trial" and Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment."

"The first time I ever read a self-help book was in prison and now I wonder if I was reading the right books before," T. laughs. "I always wanted to work as a librarian. I never thought my dream would come true," she adds sarcastically.

T. is a 35-year-old mother of two. Two weeks before she began serving her sentence, she and her husband divorced. She has been in prison for five months and has 10 months to go. She was born in Israel and moved with her family to South Africa when she was six, and then to America 10 years later. At 19, she decided to return to Israel on her own. "I was a spoiled child," she says. "I made my own bed for the first time at age 16, I grew up with a nanny and we were well-off."

In Israel, T. got a job at an academic institution. "For me, my workplace was like a home and family," she says. "I worked there for 10 years and it was in the eighth year that I started stealing." In two years, she managed to transfer a million shekels to her bank account while concealing her actions from her husband and others.

"While I was embezzling, which required intensive efforts at concealment, I had this tremendous mental energy. I have no idea where it came from," she says, smiling wearily. "I was living so many different stories at once that I really had to invest myself in each circle of my existence - at work, at home and with my husband. I had to be creative and alert and keep inventing cover stories all the time, wherever I went, and with every person who was close to me."

Why did you do it?

T.: "It started because I needed money. My husband was out of work for seven months and I felt stressed. We didn't have anybody to borrow money from and there was no money to pay the bills and I needed NIS 20,000."

So why did you keep going for two years until you'd stolen NIS 1 million?

"The first time, I took a dollar amount that was equivalent to NIS 21,000 and then I saw how easy it was, so I continued."

You come from a wealthy family. How do you explain that?

"A year and a half before this, my father died. His death had a very extreme effect on my life. I gradually cut myself off from all the things I was connected to before - from the family, from friends and most of all from myself. I experienced a breakdown and I disconnected from everything. I got my hair cut very short, I lost weight, and I couldn't stand myself. I felt disgusted with myself. I didn't take care of myself. And this was all under the guise of perfect outward behavior. My husband was unemployed and I suddenly started spending money, going into stores and buying clothes without thinking. Then the phone calls started coming from the bank and we had no one to go to for help. I'd already taken every possible loan from work and no one in our close circle wanted to help us. I remember I was driving in the car one wintry day and the woman from the bank called again, and at the end of the conversation I pulled over and it hit me: I work with a lot of money, and it could be easy. I was stunned by my thoughts. It was tempting but very scary. I went around and around with it for a few days and then I just did it."

What happened to the fear?

"The awareness of the risk was there all the time, but you disconnect from it somehow. I would lie in bed at night and think: In the end I'm going to go to prison. But I shooed the thought away like a fly. When I was caught and the whole thing blew up, it was like a bombshell to me. It took me a long time to really grasp just how big this thing was and how many people it affected. While it was going on I didn't care about anyone or anything, just how soon I could get my hands on the next bunch of money."

You stole from a place that was like your home since you were 19.

"That's right. And the fraud expanded from there. I was living a double life in terms of my married life, too. For the first time, I actively sought a relationship outside my marriage. I really looked. And it wasn't long at all until I found one and I was in a tumultuous relationship that drained more energy from me. Only here in prison did I discover that I don't really love anyone else except for my children - not my husband or my mother, and I'm not really capable of connecting with anybody again."

After the theft was exposed and the legal proceedings were underway, T. tried to kill herself. Subsequently, she was under outpatient care for six months at Shalvata Hospital, where she was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression and began receiving medical treatment.

"I feel much better with the pills," she says. "They stabilize my mood. It feels a lot better to be a stable person. And it's easier for the people in my life to cling onto this idea that I was found to have manic depression and that the crime derived from that, from a lack of control and of treatment."

T. says she arrived at the prison with a small pink suitcase on wheels. "I showed up as if I was headed for the Duty Free," she laughs. "With all my things in plastic bags. I'm sensitive about cleanliness. From the first day, they put me in a cell by myself, because they saw that I wouldn't fit in with the other prisoners. I felt like I was in a prison within a prison within a prison, but after two weeks, I dared to leave the room and to let go of my fears. By now, I've adjusted pretty well, I work in the prison: I clean the clinic, I'm the librarian, I work in the laundry room, I work in the petting corner. But it's impossible to truly acclimate to this."

Rehab requirements

"It's just not possible anymore to pretend that this phenomenon doesn't exist," says Lilach Ben-Moshe Ga'ash, a clinical criminologist and director of a day center for ex-convicts run by the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority. Five years ago, she says, the parole board decided to make the early parole of white-collar female inmates contingent upon their participation in a rehabilitative program run by the authority. Before then, these women would usually reject the treatment programs offered them, insisting they wouldn't return to prison, that they weren't criminals, that it was just a mistake or a one-time slipup.

"Fortunately," she explains, "there was a breakthrough when the parole board realized that these women need treatment and rehabilitation. These are women who lied to their families and employers, who committed fraud for years, sometimes a decade, to the tune of millions of shekels, and manipulated and schemed for long periods of time. These are women who were in distress and didn't just happen to 'fall' into crime and prison."

What awaits them on the outside?

Ben-Moshe Ga'ash: "Men who go to prison for embezzlement and fraud usually set some money aside. These women commit fraud for the sake of a man or a family unit that oppresses them; even if they do it for themselves, the money doesn't stay with them. They all come out of prison with no money and with debts. They think that everything will be waiting for them outside just as it was when they went in, and they get a shock when they come out. Often, it means returning home and to their previous environment with real problems of trust and having to deal with that.

"In terms of employment, they need professional retraining because they can't go back to doing what they did before, not as a lawyer or an accountant. When we seach for jobs for them, there are a lot of employers who are wary of placing any trust in them. Sometimes, despite all their talents and skills, it's easier to find a job for female ex-convicts imprisoned because of drugs or prostitution. Society is definitely more forgiving toward women who worked in prostitution or who were addicted to drugs." W

Prisoner T. ironing at the Neve Tirza women's prison.Credit: Nir Kafri



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