Germany's humane prison system: Ellis Cose

Focus on preparing prisoners to return to society could provide model for reforming our failed criminal justice system

Ellis Cose
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Last month, President Obama told law enforcement officials from around the country that America was experiencing a “unique moment” — one in which people of all stripes were “asking hard questions about … criminal justice.” Indeed, in thoughtful circles, virtually everything is being questioned: prosecutorial power, lengthy prison sentences, police behavior and various policies that push kids (particularly black and poor kids) out of school and one step closer to jail.

Jugendstrafanstalt Berlin, a correctional facility for young males. The prison features nicely kept grounds and neat compact residences, with balconies.

That questioning has taken some thinkers abroad. Nicholas Turner and Jeremy Travis (presidents, respectively, of the Vera Institute of Justice and John Jay College of Criminal Justice) recently led a delegation to Germany. Upon returning, they wrote in praise of the German commitment to reintegrating prisoners into society. “We hoped that we were getting a glimpse of what the future of the American criminal justice system could look like,” they wrote. I went to Germany to see for myself; and after several days touring Berlin prisons — a youth facility and two adult penitentiaries — I was just as impressed, if perhaps not as optimistic.

My first stop was Jugendstrafanstalt Berlin, a facility for young males. There, I hung out in an English class as youths peppered me with questions about America’s death penalty. The prison features nicely kept grounds and neat compact residences (one with balconies). It offers schoolwork or vocational training during the day and sports and other leisure activities in the afternoon. No one has to share a cell. Some of the young men (32 in a prison that currently houses 315) are so trusted that they leave the facility daily, unescorted, to go to work. An additional 20 or so can leave to seek employment or get drug treatment or other therapy.

I asked Thorsten Luxa, the prison governor, whether he worried about the men escaping. No, he replied. Last year, only three failed to return: “But they came back a day later.” The errant youths were not trying to flee but had simply overstayed a visit to someone’s house or lingered too long at a pub.

Berlin’s newest prison, Heidering, is, in some ways, even more laid back. That adult-male prison, which opened in 2013, was always intended to be different. Gero Meinen, director general of the Berlin Prison Administration, recalled numerous architectural proposals for a dark place defined by steel and concrete. He and his colleagues had a different idea. “Prisons should be bright,” Meinen said. They “should have a lot of light.”

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As I toured the landscaped grounds with Heidering director Anke Stein (who pointed out that in 17 years walking through men’s prisons alone, she had never been attacked), I saw basketball, badminton and volleyball courts, a table tennis area, fitness rooms, a radio station, a small lending library (open to both prisoners and staff), and a 400-meter running track. In a small classroom near the track, I happened upon a willowy, pretty woman watching over inmates. Nadin Tilinski, the 31-year-old single mother, had spent several years at Berlin’s State Ballet School. She had become a corrections officer because she thought it was interesting work. Did she ever feel endangered among prisoners? She smiled: “It’s safe. It’s OK."

For the rest of the day, I could not shake the thought of a prison that employs a ballet dancer as a guard — that does not see corrections officers as enforcers but as resources for its prisoners, that puts prospects through two years of training, much of it designed to help them understand their job is to befriend prisoners, not humiliate them.

Germany has not always followed such a philosophy. The shift began in the late 1960s, with a prisoner’s complaint against officials who had refused to mail a letter he had written. That complaint made its way to the federal Constitutional Court, which sided with the prisoner. So began the revolution.

A new generation had come of age, said Frank-Ulrich Eichhorn, an executive with the prison authority. “It was the first generation that revolted against Nazi parents and Nazi authorities.” Many people, including those on the Constitutional Court, were looking for a new way. Over the years, that court has steadily propelled Germany further along the path of treating prisoners as full citizens, of facilitating their re-entry into society, of paying them a fair wage for work.

Heidering director Stein is fully supportive of that. “Germany did so many awful things,” she said. “I hope we learned from that.” Germany no longer allows parents to beat children, she pointed out: “It’s not allowed in society. And if you are not allowed to hit someone else, you have to talk.”

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So corrections officials in Berlin talk. They try to de-escalate and defuse tense situations. And instead of hiring testosterone-fueled macho men, Berlin employs a ballerina prison guard. “We treat (prisoners) as neighbors,” Stein told me. “Perhaps we can accept them as neighbors.”

American culture is more violent. Our issues with guns and gangs run deeper. Instead of showcase prisons such as Heidering, we are known for harsh, oppressive, heavily guarded compounds.

In The House of the Dead, Fyodor Dostoyevsky made a statement a century and a half ago that still rings true. Harsh treatment, he pointed out, has  “no effect but to develop in … men profound hatred, a thirst for forbidden enjoyment, and frightful recalcitration.”

Although it is not clear that Berlin’s approach would work in America, it is clear that our way has not. We lock up roughly nine times as many people per capita as Germany, under generally harsher conditions and for much longer periods of times. Yet Germany is far safer, with a murder rate that is  between one-fifth and one-sixth of ours. America’s violent crime rate has indeed dropped since the early 1990s, but our lock-them-up approach doesn’t seem to deserve much credit for that. As the National Academy of Sciences put it: The impact of those policies is “unlikely to have been large." By any criteria, our fighting crimes success pales by comparison with Germany. For all its achievements elsewhere, in this sphere American exceptionalism has been a spectacular failure.

Our comedians joke about people being brutalized, even raped, in prison, as if that is a convicted criminal’s just desserts. Germany reminds us that someday, most of those people will be back among us, that they, in many respects, are us. If nothing else, the German model ought to make us reflect on whether ours is a sane way to treat that troublesome (and often-despised) part of ourselves.

Ellis Cose, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and  senior adviser to The Pinkerton Foundation, is the author of The End of Anger and The Rage of a Privileged Class.

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