For the past five months, seven prisoners clad in orange have been meeting weekly at the department for rehabilitation for drug addicts at the Hasharon prison. They are all victims of sexual assault and are participating in a pioneering support group called “trauma and recovery.” In prison they talk for the first time of the traumatic memories that have been locked inside them, sharing their secrets about their sexual assaults in an attempt to become liberated through the salutary effects of the group.
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This group is a result of collaboration between the Israel Prison Service and the sexual assault crisis center. The group is led by Eran Hahn, a psychotherapist who runs a hotline for youth and adult male victims at the Tel Aviv branch of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, and by Chief Superintendent Dorit Cohen, director of the department for rehabilitation from drug and alcohol abuse at Hasharon prison.
Cohen, who initiated the group, has been tending to addicts in prison for 20 years. She estimates that 80-90 percent of addicted prisoners were victims of sexual abuse in their early years. “Over the years there has been an increased understanding of the need for a thorough response to the problem of males who were victims of sexual abuse,” she says.
Hahn says that male victims have “a great fear of divulging such secrets, especially when they are part of the criminal world. There are prisoners who talk about this for the first time only with prison wardens or in support groups, when they are already in their 40s or 50s.”
Is there a difference between this group and groups he leads at the center?
“Definitely” says Hahn. “As soon as they say they were victims of sexual assault and I don’t get up and leave – that’s a new experience for them. The understanding that after sexual assault one can still live a normal life, not one of crime, is also new to them. One of the prisoners came up to me and said, ‘listen, if I’d known about you 30 years ago I wouldn’t be here now.’ This was someone serving time for murdering his assailant.”
“I’m finally starting to feel things. I no longer feel closed to the world,” says Meir, 48, prisoner at Hasharon prison (not his real name, as is the case with other names in this story).
He recently joined a support groups for victims of sexual abuse, a first such group for prisoners. “The group is one of the greatest things that have happened to me in my life. It comes with a price, with flashbacks of things I’d forgotten, memories from the abuse I suffered in my childhood. However, I’m starting to sense relief such as I’ve never experienced before.”
At the age of six, he relates, a relative he trusted and admired became his pimp, using him as a male prostitute. “He used to take me to a known location where pedophiles and prostitution clients gathered, and give me away for money,” he recalls in a restrained manner and a gloomy face.
“The house I grew up in had a violent and tense atmosphere, one of alertness and a sense of danger. My mother had outbursts of fury and tried to immolate herself and my father was a violent alcohol abuser. We were a big family and no one there knew what I was going through. In order to protect myself I constructed an imaginary world.”
At the age of eight he was already using soft drugs and at the age of 10 he managed to get into a boarding school “in order to escape all of that,” he says, adding that “it didn’t really help, since when I went home on weekends I was still used as a prostitute. At the age of 13 I started using hard drugs and became an addict. My sexual abuse stopped only when that relative went to prison.”
For years Meir managed to hide his drug addiction. When he turned to a private rehab center at the age of 32 he was raped by a male counsellor there and left the program. When he tried to talk about the rape with a female relative he was met with disbelief.
He started using larger amounts of drugs and his condition deteriorated until he found himself on the street. During that time, in which he was taking psychiatric drugs and suffering from hallucinations, Meir murdered a female relative. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, of which he’s done 12.
“I’m sorry that only now have I joined such a support group,” he says. “If I’d known earlier who to turn to for help it could have changed my life. Participating in the group is ordering my confusion and thoughts, my conception of identity.
“I now understand what happened to me. I’m not trying to make excuses and say that because of that I did what I did. The group has given me confidence to talk about the assaults I went through, validating the fact that I’m not imagining it and that it really happened. It’s restoring me back to life.”
Cohen says that his story is a representative one. “They were invisible children and the sexual assault entrenched these feelings. They weren’t treated and had no one to talk to about the assaults, so drugs became their existential response.”
Their abandonment and helplessness, she says, are part of what led them to crime. “Their fear of being hurt led them to develop a very violent nature, in effect identifying with their abuser with the understanding that he was the strong one, adopting his behavior patterns so that it didn’t happen to them again. There are many other deprivations at play, such as dysfunctional parents, exposure to violence, neglect. However, sexual abuse was the incident that divided their lives into before and after.”