Mordechai's an Addict. We Love You, Mordechai

Unanticipated feelings possess you when you enter the Hermon Prison. It is located in the midst of the beautiful, truly intoxicating landscape of Upper Galilee, near the Druze village of Maghar and the Zalmon River. Unlike other prisons in Israel, Hermon has no restraining walls, no bars and no fences. Cells are not locked and prisoners move freely and unescorted through the wards. A tour of the gym, a visit to the well-equipped library, and a glimpse of the meticulously mown lawn, open for sprawling, tempt the visitor to wonder what one has to do to get in.

"While other prisons in Israel create external boundaries for prisoners by means of fences," explains the prison's deputy chief, Avi Turgeman, "We demand that the prisoner learn to create his own internal boundaries."

Established in 1998, Hermon Prison is considered the largest therapeutic-rehabilitative addiction treatment center in Israel. About 600 prisoners, classified as "minimally dangerous," with remaining sentences of up to five years, are held here. Half of them are treated in alcohol and drug abuse rehabilitation and anger-management programs, and the rest, housed in separate wards that are managed like a regular prison, are required to stay "clean."

"Only prisoners who express a sincere desire to recover are accepted in this prison. That is the main criterion," Turgeman emphasizes. The prisoners accepted int the nine-month to one-year substance abuse rehab program are required to sign a contract that demands that they adhere to the prison's strict and demanding daily schedule:

They must rise at 5 A.M., be inspected for drug and alcohol use, attend work and study programs and diligently participate in group therapy. Prisoners even relinquish furloughs, during the first three months of treatment to avoid obstacles to their efforts to remain clean.

Kamel (all names here are fictitious) is a father of five who has been in the rehab program for six months. He's 45. In the therapy group for alcoholics, he says, "I'd run away from home to avoid beating her. I'd go to friends' houses in Haifa." He is serving his second term for wife-beating.

Kamel has been drinking for 20 years, and this is the first time he has tried to stop. He says he has not slept a night for two weeks because of nerves, and he feels other group members are harassing him. Ward director Orli Halfon asks him to identify situations in which he has had similar feelings.

"With my wife," he responds.

"And what did you do about it? Did you drink?"

Memory of alcohol

Kamel nods. A memory of the taste of alcohol appears to be the cause of the smile on his face. Halfon tells him, "The feelings that you have toward other members of the group did not begin here. You know those feelings better than your own life and now you have no alcohol. How do you cope with that?"

"I want to fix it," Kamel says. "I want to think about what I did with my life. I beat my wife because I drank."

Some of the group members have a problem with Kamel's response and nervously rock in their chairs. Halfon asks who has had similar feelings. Liam, age 37, a British immigrant doing a term for wife abuse, says that the feeling of humiliation is familiar. As a child, he was physically abused and expelled from school. He started drinking, using drugs, and exhibiting violent behavior when he was 12. Before he was imprisoned, he participated in an alcohol rehab program for three months, but, only here, he feels he has been reborn. "The feeling of being a zero is familiar to me in daily life," Liam says. "It was impossible for me to go into a grocery store and buy milk. I suffered from low self-esteem."

"Are you still in that place?" Halfon asks.

Liam: "No. Now I can look people in the eye."

Halfon: "What changed?"

Liam: "I learned to look at myself from another direction - to understand that there are other things inside me. But mostly I learned to identify emotions that come up in me without panicking. In the past, I didn't allow myself to feel because emotion would take me to bad places." The alcohol treatment unit was established three years ago. "The prison services conducted examinations that revealed that many prisoners are sentenced for crimes committed under the influence of alcohol," Halfon says. Of the 40 prisoners in the unit, 26 are serving time for domestic abuse, nine for sex offenses, four for crimes against property, and one for trafficking. There are 17 Arabs, 12 immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States, six native Israelis (mainly of Middle-Eastern and North African ethnicity), four Ethiopian immigrants, and one British immigrant.

Up to the surface

Halfon says that, once alcohol is gone, everything rises to the surface: feelings of inferiority, violent behavior, harsh language, and deep-seated feelings of humiliation. "During treatment, they learn to know themselves," she says. "They become aware that alcohol might free them to engage in violence, but it does not cause violence. They are the cause of violence." According to her, "There is a lack of awareness of this phenomenon, because alcohol consumption is not considered a crime. Until the alcoholic commits a crime and pays an enormous price, like loss of family, work, or connections with children, he does not come to rehab."

"I realized that I had violent behavior patterns, and it was important to me to treat myself," says Diab, age 28, serving a five-year term for raping and beating his ex-wife. "This is the first time I am in recovery. Only here, I understood the types of violence that I used. Until then, I didn't know that they call what I did verbal abuse, physical abuse, or emotional abuse," he says. "I grew up in a very violent, strict home. I grew up fearing my father and watching him beat my mother. I would lock myself in my room and escape from it all. At 18, I started drinking. It started as fun with friends, but then I felt that alcohol helped me forget everything."

Four years ago, Diab married a relative. He admits that he raped her before and during the marriage, perpetrated other violent acts against her, and threatened her. "During that period, I drank six to seven beers or a bottle of whiskey every day. I felt that she was cheating on me and I wanted to control and hurt her," he says. "Only in treatment, in prison, did I understand that the problem is not alcohol but my outbursts, and now I am aware that I have a problem and I have to treat it."

Diab was recently engaged to a woman his age. "She knows everything," he says. "She came to visit me in prison and saw me participate in group therapy. I share my thoughts with her, and she sees that my opinion of women has changed and developed."

Is he afraid he will once again use alcohol and engage in violence when he is released from prison?

"I have fear," he admits. "But I know I can ask for help and involve others - not close myself off and ignore problems. I want another type of life. I want to change my behavior and I'm afraid that, if I have children, they will imitate my behavior."

The prison's unique treatment concept has yielded an astounding success rate: since its establishment, only 20 percent of the prisoners who were successfully integrated in the rehab center have returned to jail. (Seventy percent become repeat offenders who return to prison in other Israeli prisons.)

The prison's House of Hope rehab program for violent men won an international prize in 2002. The real measure of successful treatment, Turgeman says, is expressed in the annual "Alumni Conference" at the prison. "I don't know another Israeli prison in which released prisoners return to visit - of their own free will."

In Hermon Prison jargon, prisoners in rehab programs are called "residents." The wards are called "therapeutic units," and cells are called "rooms." The prison buildings are called a "house." "The goal is to create an environment identical to the one outside and to confront them with their patterns of behavior," Halfon explains.

"Alcoholics tend to isolate themselves and become self-absorbed. We house two to three prisoners in a room and build a program that forces them to conduct their lives, from morning to night, in a therapeutic group.

"They are given responsibility for aspects of the unit and, because they have violent behavior patterns, we make sure that they are not exerting control over one another."

"Friends, the day has come to leave this place," says Mordechai, 40, a prisoner in the ground-floor alcohol treatment unit. He completed treatment in the unit while serving a two-year term for sexual assault.

"Mordechai's addicted," he says.

And the prisoners respond with a roar that echoes through the prison, "We love you, Mordechai." According to him, "It's not easy. It's hard to leave this place and change habits and thoughts. During the first days of my term, I was incarcerated in the Negev, and I saw a television program about Hermon Prison. I started laughing and said, 'What? Those are prisoners? Impossible.' I was amazed that they constantly said, 'I love you,' to each other, and hug, and sit in circles. After a few months, I asked to be moved here for rehab.

"I went through the interview, examination and selection process, and they decided I was suitable. During the first three months, I sat in the group without talking. I didn't even say how I felt. They asked me and I didn't answer. I was inside myself.

"It took me three months to talk about my feelings. I participated in awareness groups and, there, I gave myself over - the way I really am - without faking. I was always afraid to say that I'm addicted. I always thought I could stop drinking on my own.

"Before I was arrested, I drank a lot. I couldn't control myself and I was very wild. In this treatment unit, I started understanding where the problem is. I'm the problem - not my family, not my kids, no one. Me."

When Mordechai is finished speaking, the prisoners applaud. Just as he saw on television, the prisoners hug and recite the Serenity Prayer. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference," which echoes throughout Hermon Prison.