Trauma Therapy: Rehabilitating Victims of Sexual Abuse in Israeli Prisons

'The prison walls don't keep out the change underway today in society about breaking the silence of sexual assault victims,' says therapy group leader Tamar Krock-Zamir.

A therapy session for victims of sexual assault at Neve Tirtza prison, led by Tamar Krock-Zamir (L) and Gali Yelin, April 6, 2016.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“I don’t understand what’s happening to me today. I was always in the position of the victim, I don’t know how I became the attacker,” says 19-year-old Chen (whose name has been changed to hide her identity). “My father was murdered when I was little. To be a victim is something I know. Now I’m in the role of the victimizer, and I don’t recognize it. It’s strange for me. I look in the mirror and don’t know myself. I no longer know who I am.” Chen, who participates in a therapy group for victims of sexual abuse in the Neve Tirtza prison for women, speaks quietly, broken by the pain, and it is an effort for her to get out each word.

Chen was imprisoned for six years at 17 after she killed an Eritrean asylum seeker who stalked her for a long period, and who she says sexually assaulted her. She is the youngest in the group and the other prisoners affectionately call her “our child.”

“I was rejected from a young age,” she begins, reconstructing fragments of her childhood, and as she speaks the room goes silent, the bodies of the older prisoners around her tense up and their eyes cloud over with pain. “At home, they always told me I was the trash of the family,” she continues. “I didn’t grow up at home from a young age. My mother gave me up and preferred I grow up in institutions. Everywhere they put me, I ran away. I couldn’t accept that my family didn’t want me. At 12 years old I started drinking alcohol and using drugs.”

When Chen hears another prisoner in the group talk about forgiving her father, who treated her very violently, she responds: “I don’t think it's possible to forgive. It’s something I’m not capable of. I haven’t forgiven until now, even though the man who attacked me is dead. Maybe he did not need to die, but to live and suffer. I’m sorry that he was killed but I won’t forgive him.”

The trauma therapy group began in Neve Tirtza 13 years ago at the initiative of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, with funding from the organization. For years, participation in the group was intended only for those prisoners who also participated in an addiction recovery or violence prevention program. Over the past year and a half, the group was opened to all female prisoners, and the response was impressive: Today there are four active groups in the prison at the same time. One fifth of the entire prison population takes part in these groups. They meet once a week for an hour and a quarter, with each participant spending on average a year to two in the group. A month ago, for the first time, a similar trauma therapy group was started for male victims of sexual assault.

At first it was not easy to win the prisoners’ trust and cooperation, and they did not want to participate. It took time to understand that even those who assaulted their attackers were also victims. Now the groups have two leaders: a social worker from the Israel Prisons Service, and a staff member from ARCCI, says Tamar Krock-Zamir, a social worker who leads the trauma therapy groups in prison and has worked with ARCCI for 30 years.

“The focus and emphasis of the trauma groups in prison is not just on the prisoners being victims of sexual assault, but also on their becoming victimizers, and their aggression,” says Gali Yelin, who has been leading the trauma groups for alongside Krock-Zamir for six years.

“Tami-trauma”

Krock-Zamir, who the prisoners call “Tami-trauma,” or “TT” for short, explains that in the past, the female prisoners were reluctant to talk, and it took more time to reach the issue of vulnerability. Today, many are waiting to participate, she says. “The prison walls don't keep out the change underway today in society about breaking the silence of sexual assault victims. Changing the dialogue concerning sexual attacks is trickling down to the prisoners too, and today they are more open and want to speak about the matter, which had been taboo for most of them.”

Neve Tirtza, the only women’s prison in Israel, is a high security penitentiary and has only 180 prisoners. The women’s division of the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority says research has shown that over 90 percent of female prisoners have been victims of sexual abuse and incest in childhood, and that these cases were not reported nor treated. In addition, some 60 percent were addicted to drugs, and most dropped out of school before the age of 18.

Women hang laundry at Neve Tirtza prison, April 6, 2016.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

"Research shows a strong link between sexual abuse and sexual assault in childhood and criminality among women,” says Yelin. “Girls who experienced serious abuse in childhood and in adolescence tend to use drugs and alcohol to relieve the pain, they leave the frameworks of home and school and fall victim to pimping, that drives them to drugs and prostitution, and from there the road to crime is short."

"Mostly it is crime meant to finance addiction, or it is a survival strategy," Yelin explains. "In recent years we have discovered that alongside the classic 'victim' profile, even those serving sentences for white-collar crime have a background of sexual assault in childhood.” She says prisoners usually experienced sexual assault that was much harsher and continued for longer periods of time and than the average in society.

When asked if, had these sexual assaults been reported and treated at the time they happened, would the victims have been able to avoid a path of crime, Krock-Zamir thinks for a long time and says: “I think so. If the attack against some of them had been treated, it is reasonable to assume they would not have reached prison.”

What happens to them when they understand the significance and influence of the sexual assault on their lives?

“Many times they soften up and remove their protective walls," says Krock-Zamir. "They change. You see someone who was very violent, very tough, who was almost impossible to get close to, to touch her and talk to her, who suddenly begins to soften and remove her armor and defenses.”

“It is impossible to treat a prisoner if you do not treat the root of her problem, the source of her story and bring her to some sort of awareness of the actions she took,” says deputy commissioner Sarah Friedman, the commander of Neve Tirtza, about the importance of the trauma therapy group project. “According to studies, their criminality is the result of their being victims in the past. It is not something we justify, but the treatment must relate to this in order for them to be able to end the circle of criminality and escape from it.”

How do you explain that most of the prisoners kept silent for years about the crimes committed against them, and only in prison, of all places, they are talking about it for the first time?

“In this segment of the population, many have never been exposed to group therapy because their life circumstances did not allow it, or due to fear of disclosing that a close figure such as a father or relative had hurt them. Here they have a secure space and regretfully, they quickly understand that this is something many of them share. We have here a joint fate concerning this issue and that is why they discover that it is not only them who experienced it, so it may be easier to open up and talk about it,” says Friedman.

Disengagement plan

“There must be a continuity of treatment for prisoners even after they leave the prison. If we treat them optimally, we bring them to self awareness and give them tools, and when they leave prison they do not have proper accompaniment or an aid center that will grant them continuous treatment or an address they can turn to and receive treatment, then the revolving door turns very quickly.”

“Before every meeting we buy all the sweets in the canteen,” says Galit (not her real name), laughing. She is 46 years old. “Just from the pressure that we are going to talk about the trauma we went through, we clean the shelves of all the chocolate, baklava and Krembo; and when we leave here we run to buy sweets again.” On a more serious note, “it hurts, the family we grew up in did not see us. You are here in therapy in prison and they see you and listen to you. It hurts to understand it,” she says.

This is Galit’s fourth prison term for drug dealing. “At age nine I went through a brutal rape... I didn’t tell my mother, I was afraid to talk about it. I still don’t understand why I didn’t tell her. When I was 10 and a half my mother died and my life fell apart. I left home for a boarding school. There I was raped by a counselor. It was awful because that was someone who was supposed to protect you and defend you. After a short time my mother’s brothers raped me. My entire childhood was a series of acts of sexual abuse and I didn’t talk. You get a message from your environment that there is no one to tell it to at all, and no one who will protect you.”

Her boyfriend, who was a drug dealer, first offered her to use hard drugs when she was 17. At 18 she married him, and at 24 she already had two children — and was a drug addict. For a long time she was homeless and slept near the central bus station in Tel Aviv. She managed stop using drugs at the age of 28 and stayed clean for a long period, but never succeeded in breaking her prison habit.

“I’ll tell you something that is hard to listen to, I’m happy that I got to know drugs,” she says. “It may have caused me a lot of damage, but it made me forget the pain of the sexual assaults. I had no one else to calm this pain. Only the drugs ‘treated’ this pain and managed to dull the memory of the attacks. I didn’t have such a support group before that and I didn’t know how to deal with the attacks,” says Galit.