In Israel, there are around 25,000 men in prison. Some 14,000 of these are convicted on criminal charges. The rest are incarcerated on security-related charges – and are mostly Palestinian. In comparison, there are just 200 women in prison in the Holy Land. And they're all in one place – Neve Tirza.
Situated in Ramla, not far from Tel Aviv, and first opened in 1968, Neve Tirza is a small, dilapidated and dangerously overcrowded place. The size of most of the cells is 13 square metres, including a toilet and shower. Each cell is home to around six women, who often share their sleeping space, either out of choice or necessity. The United Nations declares that a basic human right, regardless of the person’s status, is a minimum of eight square metres of living space. In Neve Tirza, each prisoner has around two square metres to call their own.
Israeli photographer Tomer Ifrah was sent to Neve Tirza, back in 2013, to take a portrait of a prisoner for an Israeli magazine. Seeing the potential for a larger project, he found the prison warden’s office, knocked on her door, and negotiated further access.
Ifrah saw something beyond the bars, rules, claustrophobia and institutionalism of the place. He sensed a photography series that might have the power to say something about the country of his birth. Over repeated visits, Ifrah has now taken more than 500 images from within the prison, as part of the joint Israeli/Palestinian photography project Frames Of Reality. The series, he says, details how Jewish and Muslim women, and indeed women from all over the world, have developed close and intimate relationships in such a stark place – often in the most extreme and traumatic of circumstances.
The women in Neve Tirza are not separated by beliefs or ethnicity. Jewish and Muslim women share cells, showers, food and beds, alongside women of all kinds of ethnic and national identities. "Women from all kinds of social, cultural or religious backgrounds live together in Neve Tirza," Ifrah tells Refinery29. "Most of them are ethnic minorities and were not born on Israeli soil. Some come from Russia, Ethiopia, or South America."
Many of the women in Neve Tirza are there on drugs charges, and are serving a second or third term. Mental illness is a serious problem, and the prison does not have the capacity, or maybe even the will, to treat the inmates as in any way afflicted. Issues here are compound and endemic. About 60% use prescribed psychiatric drugs. About 70% have served time here before, or will, statistically speaking, end up back here again. Many of the women here are mothers, but the prison doesn’t provide an adequate space for them to spend time with their kids when they visit. Many of the women have a background of sex work and, in many cases, are victims of sexual abuse and drug addiction, yet there’s little attempt to provide any sort of therapy for something that haunts people for life.
Ifrah doesn’t try and hide this in his photography. Many of his shots are narrow and close, often showing a single woman in isolation and lost in her own world, as if the camera wasn’t there, or was of little consequence to whatever was going on in her head. In some, the women lounge on their bed, or hang their arms through the bars of their cell, or crouch in a gesture of privacy as they listen to the voice of someone from the outside on the end of the phone. In others, Muslim women in veils silently read the Qur’an – their absorption a vision of power in itself.
Sometimes, Ifrah would take portraits that deeply engaged the prisoners – resulting in images that have the capacity to speak of hope, like the pregnant girl sat beside a bunch of flowers, or the woman who lies in the single patch of sun that shines on the yard, her eyes closed against the coils of barbed wire that hang just above her head. But in the intensity of their stare – and in this context of institutional confinement and decay – there’s a weary sadness to many of Ifrah’s portraits, a symbiosis between the women’s environment and the way they present themselves to the camera. It’s natural to focus on the small comforts they rely on – the cigarettes, their clothing, the tattoos and jewellery that elevate their singularity – and reflect on how paltry the comfort must be. You can’t help but wonder if they’re ever going to get out.
"Most were serving their second or third sentences,” Ifrah says. "They don’t have many options when they are released. That’s not just the case here in Israel. It’s a universal fact.”
Ifrah recounts how he became used to the sound of the insults hurled between prisoners, or the guards’ verbal violence, or the constant slamming of doors, the electric buzz as one is opened and closed again. But Ifrah wanted to capture the other side of the prison.
“If you stay close to someone for a long period of time, you often can’t help but develop a strong bond,” he says. “There is lots of love among the prisoners. They often care very deeply for each other. It feels like a very close family.”
It’s tempting to discuss Neve Tirza as a wider metaphor for the state of the State of Israel. But this prison is also indicative of a wider trend of female imprisonment throughout the world. With the exception of a handful of small, often autocratic regimes, in countries across the globe women generally constitute less than 10% of the entire prison population. In the vast majority of countries, that figure is closer to 5%. Apparently, because of their small and stable number over the years, female inmates suffer from a dual punishment – the forced marginalisation from society, and a total lack of regard when locked away.
Most modern prisons throughout the developed world have wings designed to cater for a specific type of prisoner, with specially trained guards and a basic understanding of how a prisoner might be impacted by seemingly obvious things – serious health issues, sustained drug abuse, the way the victims of crime can also perpetrate it.
If you’re below the age of 18 in the UK, for example, you’re sent to a juvenile prison. If you’re diagnosed with psychiatric issues, you‘re sent to a secure hospital. Or if your crime was motivated by drug abuse, you’re sent to a wing set up for those who are weaning themselves off drugs. This isn’t the case in Neve Tirza. A teenager serving her first sentence will find herself in a cell with hardened veterans of the system. Women who have spent a sustained period of their life on drugs are left to share cells with women who have never touched the stuff.
Vered Lee, a reporter for Haaretz, reminds us that the inmates of Neve Tirza are often victims themselves, from childhood onwards. Yet many of their crimes are heinous, unforgivable, and worthy of punishment.
“About five years ago, I interviewed a 32-year-old inmate at Neve Tirza who had been sentenced to a 25-year prison term for murder and robbery,” Lee writes. “At the age of 13, she began using drugs, and by the time of her arrest she was addicted. In prison she stopped using drugs for the first time in her life. She reflected the victimisation profile of the prisoners: a past as a girl without a childhood, a teenager who was exploited by men, the mother of a child given up for adoption. Slowly but surely, I realised that the fragile woman sitting opposite me had knocked on the door of an elderly woman, who trustingly opened it. She and her partner entered the apartment, beat the old woman cruelly, robbed her and stabbed her more than 30 times all over her body, killing her.”
Through Tomer’s lens, we see the impact of such imprisonment, a loop of violence, victimisation, and imprisonment, both in a cage in Israel, in Israel itself, and in the world at large.