The Smell of Fear: What Life Is Really Like Behind Bars in an Israeli Maximum-security Prison

Ex-cons recount the brutal, deteriorating reality inside Israeli prisons.

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Rimonim Prison.
Rimonim Prison.Credit: David Bachar
Jasmin Gueta
Jasmin Gueta

The iron gate of Rimonim Prison swings shut behind me. The air outside feels lighter.

Rimonim is a maximum-security prison in central Israel, mostly for lifers, with whom I talk.

At 10 A.M., prisoners taking classes in the small prison school take a break. Only the math teacher remains in class, a young man with glasses in an orange uniform. In his previous life, he had been an engineer. He’s been teaching prisoners math for four years and takes satisfaction in empowering them with knowledge. The Israel Prison Service says 30% of prisoners can’t read or write and 70% have learning disabilities and self-esteem issues. It supports the school.

The prisoner-teacher shows me the class library. He himself is doing a degree in psychology through the Open University, and subscribes to Haaretz. He tells me about his constant sense of guilt and the psychological therapy he’s receiving in jail. I ask why he’s there. “I murdered my partner,” he answers.

In the music room, two prisoners play me a tune on keyboard and guitar. A third band member is in court that day.

A prisoner walks through Rimonim Prison.
A prisoner walks through Rimonim Prison.Credit: David Bachar

Prisoners have painted pomegranates on the wall )Rimonim means “pomegranates” in Hebrew(. Its walls look like a grade school, with a notice board of approaching birthdays and pictures of the prisoners in plays they put on.

But it’s no grade school. In 2015 dozens of prisoners got involved in a fight involving shivs, and threw tables and chairs. One prisoner almost died. Two years ago a prisoner smuggled in a gun and wounded another prisoner and eight guards. The incident only ended when he was shot to death by security forces.

What is prison like for people with long sentences? If when their term was up they were offered a million shekels to stay another year, would they? I thought most would agree. Not one did. They lost more than their freedom in prison, they said: They lost their human rights and sense of self. Prison is apparently the least democratic institution.

Potato peel vodka

“There are moments of joy,” says Efrat, newly out of Neve Tirza women’s prison. “I made friends who I miss.”

Prison is routine, with work and leisure, when they can paint or learn things like carpentry, she says. There are even romances with prisoners from elsewhere, over the phone. “The women prisoners make conference calls to the men’s prison and relationships are formed. There are even weddings where they meet for the first time under the canopy.”

Rimonim Prison.
Rimonim Prison.Credit: David Bachar

Drugs are smuggled in and the women improvise alcohol stills: On Rosh Hashanah they made vodka from potato peels, she says.

She did two years and seven months for fraud. Taken sobbing from court to jail, it sounded like an eternity. Women in the cells awaiting entrance to Neve Tirza laughed hysterically at her wail that she would be in jail long after them; some had been sentenced to life. They helped her, hugging and kissing her.

Two of Neve Tirza’s divisions, Aleph and Bet, are considered “dirty,” rife with alcohol and drugs; there is a rehab division, a therapy division and a division clean of drugs called Savyon, which houses most of the lifers.

There prisoners have a hierarchy, topped by strong, well-connected ones, then the ones doing their bidding, and at the bottom the rapists, who everybody hates. For newcomers, it takes learning.

Prison is an alt-world. “Outside, money talks, but here the rules are different,” says Roni Leibowitz, the motorcycle bandit otherwise known as the “Ofnobank” – who only got nabbed robbing his 22nd bank, in 1990. “If you go in rich, you’ll suffer. When Ofer Glazer, the former husband of [billionairess] Shari Arison, went to jail, he was squashed. Prisoners extracted millions from him. It’s true that many have no formal education, but they have street smarts. They’re cunning and smart. Some could have run industries if they hadn’t turned to crime.”

Rimonim Prison.
Rimonim Prison.Credit: David Bachar

Sentenced to 20 years, Leibowitz wound up pardoned by then-President Ezer Weizman after eight. He’d had a house in the affluent city of Herzliya Pituah, he had cars, would travel overseas. He’ll never forget his first day, he says, “falling from the high life to cellars in Ramle [Prison] In prison I accrued life experience of 7,000 years.”

Absolute dominion

Drugs are a means of control; there are a lot of addicts who depend on and are controlled by the gangs, and if you didn’t use, you may start, says Leibowitz. He didn’t.

The cell is 25 meters square, has four bunkbeds and a hierarchy of its own; a small bathroom and shower. Eight happy prisoners have beds, overcrowding means mattresses on the floor.

The warden has absolute dominion; he can allow family visits or deny them, enable early release or frustrate it, says Leibowitz.

Prisons were invented in the 19th century from the medical model, analogous to hospitals, says Dr. Hagit Lernau, deputy national public defender and author of the 2016 book “Criminal Behavior and Law Enforcement.” The idea was for experts like psychologists and social workers to diagnose and treat criminals, and return them “healed” to society.

The model broke down in the mid-20th century after sociological studies denigrated the efficacy of “treating” prisoners by incarceration.

Rimonim Prison.
Rimonim Prison.Credit: David Bachar

Prison means more than losing freedom. Prisoners can’t have property, which in civil life are hallmarks of status and identity. They also have to fight to protect their own security.

“Life in prison consists of reward and punishment,” says Leibowitz. Prisoners can “win” privileges, like making a phone call. Of course, the ultimate reward (for good behavior) is vacation, or early parole. Inside, he remembers the loss of personal security and the fear.

“Fear has a smell and in prison there’s a constant smell of fear,” he says. “You sleep with one eye open.” It took years after his release to be able to sit at a restaurant with people behind him.

For Efrat, the fear was comprehensive: When due for a day out of prison, she was terrified that somebody would sabotage her. Why? Because. Then she couldn’t see her son.

Human dignity and forced enemas

The Prison Service is a state within the state, says attorney Shani Illouz: “It has rules of its own.”

Obedience to the rules is achieved through privileges, of course. She teaches a course on how to go to jail, including the nugget that the Prison Service may punish a prisoner without telling him why.

She feels conditions in prisons have been deteriorating. Take medical care: Prisoners lose their regular health insurance. Problems are taken care of by the prison medical system, but it isn’t good, Illouz says.

Rimonim Prison.
Rimonim Prison.Credit: David Bachar

Zvi Rabin, a stock broker who did time at Hermon Prison, compares the Prison Service with dark totalitarian regimes a-la Idi Amin of Uganda. He snorts at the assertion that the prisoner is seen as an individual. “They treated me the same as a murderer,” says Rabin, who was convicted of insider trading, not killing anybody. “The hard part,” he says, “is that they make you feel like nothing.” He blames the management (“shocking”), not the wardens (“amazing people”).

Prisoners who work, like in the Teva Naot shoe factory, work eight hours a day and earn a few shekels a day, a fraction of the minimum wage, which is credited to them at the prison canteen – though buying anything there is a privilege to be earned. Prisoners can buy sugar, coffee, tea or writing implements, but only once every two weeks. There is no money in prison.

The loss of basic human rights has arisen in court before. The courts insist that incarceration may cost a man his freedom, but shouldn’t cost him his human rights.

One High Court of Justice case arose after prison officials searching for drugs forced prisoners to undergo enemas, a move the prisoners complained humiliated them. The court agreed that forcing a prisoner to undergo an enema against his will, for non-medical reasons, violated his modesty and dignity.

In 2009, the court threw out Amendment 28 to the Prisons Law, which enabled the establishment of privately owned prisons – the state couldn’t outsource part of its basic law-enforcement functions to a company operating for profit, ruled Justice Dorit Beinisch, in a ruling backed by seven other justices, with one (Edmond Levy) dissenting, saying that private prisons could run and their functioning could be checked to make sure prisoners weren’t suffering.

“Legally, a prisoner’s rights are preserved in prison but in practice the system isn’t transparent,” says Gilad Barnea, a public defender. “It behaves like the Atomic Energy Commission, the Shin Bet security service or the Mossad. In most cases, the jailer is the first court and last court for the prisoner. His decision is final and he is effectively unsupervised. The public generally doesn’t care; at best they are indifferent and at worst, they shrug ‘let them suffer.’”

Rimonim Prison.
Rimonim Prison.Credit: David Bachar

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