Wednesday, December 15, 2004, DAY ONE, JERUSALEM
I sat on a wooden bench next to a uniformed policeman, inside the small poorly lit courtroom. We were awaiting the judge. I had been arrested without committing a crime, which is like getting a parking ticket when you don’t own a car. The young policeman asked me "where are you from"? Reluctantly I answered, "America, I immigrated here in 1980". His curiosity increased, "Did you serve in the army?" I nodded my head forward and muttered "Red Berets." Moments later the judge entered the small courtroom, immediately reviewing my file. I wondered how he could read in the dark. The judge called my name, I stood. "You owe Bank Ben Leumi $400, how do you plan to pay back this unsecured debt"? It was a difficult question, as if extracting water from a stone. In Israel the cost of living well exceeds your monthly income. Israel the land of miracles. I responded to the judge’s question, "How do I give something I don’t have". The judge appeared perplexed he squinted his eyes while contemplating his next sentence, and said "If you don’t answer my question, I’ll make the decision for you; how do you plan to return the $400 to Bank Ben Leumi"? My response irritated the judge, his tone changed, as if saying "you’re annoying me, be careful." I was cornered inside a very small courtroom. Reluctantly I answered "I can handle $25 a month." The judge smiled as if I had said something funny. In a cold, careless tone he said "Judgment is passed, today you must pay $100 which immediately releases you, and in addition you shall pay $100 on the 15 th of every month, beginning on January 15th." I timidly responded "I’ve only got $20 in my possession." The judge looked down at me from the end of his nose and said "then call somebody in your family to bring you $80, otherwise you’ll be in jail for four days." The thought of going to jail terrified me, I stuttered while trying to say, "I’m an immigrant from America, I don’t have any family here." In an icy cold voice, he said "as it will be, four days in Jail." While he closed my file I asked him "what is the purpose of putting me in jail, I haven’t broken the law?" The judge arrogantly responded "yes you have broken the law, now the law shall teach you to pay your debt." He then got up and left the dark courtroom. Well I had received the go to jail card without a dice roll. That’s the law in Israel.
The young policeman silently escorted me across the street to the Russian Compound Jail. Together we entered, whereupon he signed a release form, making it official; I now belonged to the Israeli prison system. Before the young, friendly policemen departed, he bid me farewell and said, "Be careful there are serious criminals here." He meant well, but his comment immediately disturbed me. Without comprehension or control I felt fear enter my body. I had seen on T.V. what happens in jail, I was a virgin and wanted to remain as such. The entrance hall was cluttered with only policemen; they worked as prison guards. Their warm amiable behavior coaxed me out of my slightly deep coma, to a simple state of shock. Two armed guards escorted me down a flight of stairs, and through several long narrow corridors until I entered my cell, which strongly smelled like urine and wet clothes. I’ll never forget the sound of the heavy iron door slamming shut. I was in Jail!!!!
The cell was small, cramped and quite cold. Three concrete slab bunk beds to the right, which were all occupied, and a vacant one to the left, which was now my bed. It was situated between the food rack, and the bathroom. There were no windows in the cell, the only air entered between the bars in the door. The high arched ceiling was evidence that the jail was very old, probably built by the Turks. In essence we were in the dungeon, inside an old Turkish jail located in the center of Jerusalem. The man in the middle bed greeted me with a smile, he put his hand out, and we shook hands. "I’m Coby" he said with a toothless smile. I studied his worn face. Aggressively he asked me "did you bring any drugs"? I moved my head from side to side as if saying no; I still wasn’t able to speak. I recognized this man, in fact we all know him with his boney features and bulgy eyes. Although we fearfully pretend not to recognize him, a drug addict strung out. His body movements were nervous and snappy, sort of like a hungry Doberman.
The man in the bed to the left of the toothless Doberman got up from his bed and came over to me, he had the look of a seasoned criminal, his name was Benny and he spoke very poor Hebrew. Without wasting a moment he asked me, what I’m in for. I mumbled something about Bank Ben Leumi. He requested to see my court protocol, I gave it to him. He returned to his bunk, reading while lying under his thick blanket. The other two men were silent as if awaiting his judgment, the moment he finished reading he looked up towards Coby with raised eyebrows and a frowned expression on his rough looking face. He then handed the protocol to Coby (the toothless Doberman) and told him to return it to me. The picture was clear, Benny was the cell boss, and they suspected me being a police implant. Everywhere I go, everybody always thinks I’m in the Shin Bet, or something related to the police, I have that look. Benny soon left the cell; he had a preliminary court date. He had been arrested with 200 grams of heroin in his possession. Coby shirtless, paced in the cold cell, unbelievably he sweat while thinking about his next meal. He nervously spoke, with abrupt sentence halts. I asked him what he was in for. He inhaled deeply and spoke, he had sliced open an acquaintance’s belly from side to side, saying he saw all the inside parts, the acquaintance had refused to give him a fix, when he had several meals in his possession. Coby arched his chest forward and pounded it several times with his right hand while telling the story. He felt he had done right while defending his honor, more than once in the exact opposite situation he had given this man a fix. Coby was a true psychopath and extremely dangerous. The third man in the cell still hadn’t spoken. He looked lost, as if he had gotten on the wrong train and never got off. I noticed all three men had numerous large duffel bags above their bunk beds, which contained sheets, blankets, pillows, towels and much more. They had brought everything from home; come to think of it this was their home.
15:30 – Benny returned from his preliminary court hearing. He immediately boasted how his wife had smuggled heroin into his possession, right under the nose of the escorting policeman. While he spoke of this smuggling exploit, he felt important and superior to the other two. Never once did he mention what had occurred in his court preliminary hearing. Coby behaved as a little puppy anxious to receive his meal, his body language became gentle and attentive in order to accommodate his masters every wish.
16:00 – EXERCISE TIME: 2 armed guards escorted us to a long narrow concrete sunless courtyard, with very high walls and barbed wire at the top, which served as an open aired roof. The yard was terribly cold. I walked alone and quickly, in order to generate some sort of body heat. I only wore a long sleeved shirt and thin polyester slacks, while all the others wore thick heavy winter clothes. The three strode together in unison; Benny continuously spoke while the other two eagerly listened.
16:30 – While returning to the cell, Benny and Coby received permission to go to the prison synagogue. This surprised me; they didn’t look like the religious types. Back in the cell, the speechless third man nervously watched me, while he tore open an empty soft pack of cigarettes; he then placed the wrapper into a deep pan and poured boiling water into it. Moments later he took the cigarette wrappers out from the pot, and peeled the paper off, leaving only the thin aluminum foil, which he carefully placed inside a towel. Benny and Coby returned to the cell in excellent spirits, they immediately hung large towels on the electrical cord, which was strung across the room above their bunk beds. Coby (the toothless Doberman) took the aluminum foil out from the towel and rolled one of the pieces into a shiny long straw. Then from behind the makeshift room, they smoked heroin from the flattened aluminum wrapper, inhaling the fumes through the shiny straw. Within a few minutes each one was smiling, while mildly nodding their heads to some unheard drum beat. Their eyes were half shut, while they slowly spoke to one another. Minutes later their eyes were shut, they were somewhere in nowhere land lost amidst their fantasies.
20:30 – the corridor guard escorted an inmate into our cell whom carried a large open box, none of the three awoke. The inmate gave me the box, he nervously told me to give it to Benny whom had left these things in his cell. He then left the cell. In the box were 5 unopened cartons of expensive cigarettes and a huge bottle containing olive oil. I realized praying in the prison synagogue can work miracles. I told the corridor guard I had no mattress and only one small blanket, he nodded his head and mumbled soon he’ll bring me a mattress and blankets. I lay upon the cold concrete slab and half covered myself with the small torn blanket.
22:00 – Neither the mattress nor blanket ever arrived. For more than two hours I stood leaning against the bared iron door calling out "Guard I need you in cell 5." I could hear him down the corridor loudly talking on his cellular phone, yet he didn’t respond to my urgent need. It was a very cold winter night in the basement cell.
DAY TWO – 6:00 a.m. 2 armed guards warmly dressed with sweaters and jackets entered the cell, they were conducting a head count. They were different faces from the night before, never the less I complained to them about not receiving a mattress or blankets. I told them I was very cold because I don’t have any warm clothes. Neither one answered me; they had no interest in my discomfort. My toes were numb and my entire body ached due to the coldness from lying down upon the cold, hard concrete slab bed. I hadn’t slept all night. From 3:00 until the morning head count my entire body shivered upon the concrete bed. The other three hadn’t awoken upon the guards’ entrance; remarkably they were still in the same exact positions as when they nodded out last night. I drank tea and watched the countless number of little cockroaches crawl across the room from the food rack. You got use to them; they simply became part of the cell, like the furniture.
10:00 a.m. – Exercise time. None of the other awoke. While I walked alone in the cold dreary yard, I thought about the fact that without committing a crime here I was half freezing in a Jerusalem jail. This was intensely cruel and even more inhuman. While upon this thought I looked up at the barbed wire ceiling viewing the cloudy sky, and wondered if this is how our people felt in the Nazi camps. I was extremely depressed. While walking back to the cell, I noticed a mattress and two blankets on the corridor floor. I carried them back to the cell, the blankets strongly smelled like vomit, I didn’t care I was so cold and I needed to warm up my aching body. I returned to discover all three men were awake and bickering among themselves, everything in the cell had been turned over and thrown on the floor. I asked "what happened"? Benny immediately snapped back "stop with the bullshit," and in an angry tone half shouting said "every dog has his day." Appartently the guards had done it searching for drugs, which they didn’t find. Silent accusations filled the air; I saw the anger in their eyes. They suspected me of being an informant for the guards. I was scared and felt alone with these dangerous criminals. I didn’t belong here and now I felt it more than ever. I decided to move up onto the upper bunk, making it more difficult for someone to harm me. I was correct the blankets were saturated with dry vomit, the smell was nauseating. Once the three men organized their belongings, they smoked heroin just as the day before. Quiet moments passed returning them to the Land of Oz somewhere in nowhere land. I tried to sleep, but violent images disturbed me. I restlessly rolled from side to side worried I’d wake up with a knife in my back.
16:00 – exercise time, the other three men didn’t awake. I walked alone amidst my thoughts. I had served in the red berets, a top notch combat unit, always on the thin line between life and death. In all my years of duty, I couldn’t remember being scared, but now in this Jerusalem jail I was frightened someone in the cell would try to harm me. I wasn’t accustomed to this fear, the more you thought about it, the worse you felt. I was in a bad dream and couldn’t wake up.
While walking back to the cell the jail warden stopped me in the corridor, he requested to see my court protocol. He read it twice and told me tomorrow you’re out of here, I corrected him stating I still had two more days". He responded "the fourth day falls on Saturday, and it’s forbidden to release inmates on Saturday, therefore tomorrow I’m to be released". The warden was good at his job; he genuinely cared about his inmates. I wanted to talk with him about my situation in the cell, but something inside of me prevented this. I returned to the cell to find the other three men as I had left them, asleep. I now understood why heroin addicts can’t hold jobs.
19:45 – a new inmate arrived. Where upon he immediately sat in the half broken chair, and blankly stared at the wall. He was an average looking family man that you see everywhere. I asked him what he had done. He bit his lower lip while contemplating his response, then inhaled deeply and said "My crime" he shook his head in disbelief and attempted one more time the sentence. "My crime is that I try to live on my teacher’s salary in a 2.5 room flat with my three children, I didn’t pay my cellular phone bill." His eyes watered, he tried with all his power not to cry, but his soul had already shed many tears before reaching this degrading moment in jail. You could see while he spoke he was genuinely a good, honest man. He continued to speak "I don’t ask for pity, only understanding how impossible it is to live on my teacher’s salary." He paused; once again he bit his lower lip in effort to contain his pain. In Israel your monthly expenses needed to sustain a minimal existence far exceeded your monthly paycheck. Israel the land of miracles. The teacher inhaled deeply upon his cigarette and with a cracked tone said, "they arrested me like a criminal in front of my children, I’m a teacher not a criminal" A single tear broke loose dripping down his cheek, he lowered his head and began to cry, with a muffled voice he said "my children cried watching the police arrest me". I listened to him speak, nor did I know his name, yet I wanted to hug him like a brother. I shared his misery with my misery, while we sat together in this Israeli jail without ever committing a crime. Long minutes passed quietly while he fidgeted with his pack of cheap cigarettes. Slowly he regained his composure and said in a soft voice,
"In my classroom a lot of the children can’t concentrate because they’re hungry." He shook his head from side to side, while thinking about what he had said. "What do you teach"? I asked him. He looked at his old worn shoes while answering my question, "I’m a seventh grade history teacher in Jerusalem." "How long have you been teaching"? I asked him. His eyes were still occupied with the shoes, undoubtedly his mind was elsewhere. "Eleven years "he solemnly answered. Attempting to comfort the teacher I said "putting us in jail like this is not right." The teacher smiled and replied "you’re partially correct, we have no rights." quizzically I asked "what do you mean we have no rights?" He leaned back in the chair and said "In Israel there is no constitution, nor is there a bill of rights. In essence we have absolutely nothing to protect us from the perils of the establishment making laws, to dictate what is forbidden to us. We have no doctrine of civil rights in order to balance the system of law, creating only wrongs without rights and here I sit in jail." The teacher lit another cigarette and said "Nor will you ever have a doctrine of guaranteed civil rights". I asked him "why, never"? The teacher responded, " a doctrine of civil rights must apply to all the citizens including Arabs and Bedouin living in Israel. If the government doesn’t want to provide them with the basic essentials such as electricity, running water and sewage services, I rather doubt a bill of rights will ever develop, no my friend we will just continue living in limbo". He spoke as if he had thought about this issue for a long time. The teacher then scratched his scalp for several minutes, while blankly staring at the wall, and said "I have so much noise in my head", yet the cell was quiet while the others slept. The teacher never left the chair; he only mentioned the cell was freezing. He fell asleep in the broken chair.
Day 3 – 1:45a.m. – The teacher’s wife had paid his debt; he went home to his family. Atop my high bunk bed I watched him get out of the broken chair and leave the cell. His body language reminded me of the chair, it functioned but it was only a question of time it would break. I now felt alone and insecure while I lay under the smelly blanket which kept the shivers out of my body.
Day 3 – 6:00a.m. Head count. I spoke with the two guards regarding my early release which according to the warden, was today as opposed to tomorrow evening. I gave them my protocol to check it out. I nervously paced the cell; I felt like in a cage with dangerous animals, I wanted out before their food finished.
10:00 – Exercise time. The guard returned with my protocol, he said the warden had already gone home late last night and would only return Sunday morning. This meant I’m to be released tomorrow evening after the Sabbath is over. I loudly argued with the guard through the bars in the door. I was so upset while I yelled at the guard, Coby (the toothless Doberman) awoke and shouted at me to shut up, I was disturbing his sleep. I ignored him and continued to vehemently argue with the corridor guard. I was having an anxiety attack, with the thought of another unnecessary day in jail. I paced the cell like an angry animal locked up wanting his freedom. Coby got up to use the bathroom and on the way he intentionally bumped into me with his shoulder. The collision was violent; he bounced off of me and into the wall yet he continued upon his way to the bathroom. I was sure violence was near; adrenalin ran rapid in my hot veins. While I could hear him urinating, I took an unopened can of corn from the food rack and placed it within my reach. When he returned from the bathroom our eyes engaged, I heard my heart pound while studying his every move. He returned to his corner of the cell and stood several long moments while contemplating what to do. Whereupon he smoked a line of heroin and got into bed, returning back behind the mirror into the Land of Oz. I continued to pace the cell, attempting to remedy my severe anxiety attack.
13:30 – The new guard shift had begun, upon the first opportunity I stopped the new guard and explained my early release and gave him the court protocol.
14:30 – The guard returned to the cell and told me "go home". Within moments I was at the front desk in the entrance hall standing next to the warden. I understood the previous guard had never spoken to him. I stepped outside the Russian compound jail and breathed fresh air. I was free, I felt like crying.
While walking to the bus stop I remembered the judge’s comment why he was putting me in jail, to teach me to pay my debt. I asked myself what I gained from this experience. I had learned that Israel must find the courage and foresight to change these inhuman laws incarcerating innocent citizens. If not it will only be a question of time Israel will have to build another wall; but then the question is WHERE?
* Based on Author’s personal experience