The images of prison are familiar to all of us—cold, pale concrete walls, with limited light filtering through narrow, bar-protected windows; prisoners in solid jumpsuits shuffling through the corridors under the watchful eye of ever-present guards; small, unadorned cells where men and women live out long prison terms in solitude and despair.
But not all prisons fit into this stereotype.
A recent 60 Minutes exposé examines the current prison system in Germany, and finds the correctional facilities there bear little resemblance to their American counterparts. In the prisons visited, reporters were surprised to see prisoners with keys to their cells, video game consoles, private bathrooms—many of the comforts that might be expected in a typical college dormitory. Residents are encouraged to take courses to learn how to paint, play soccer, or crochet. (“We make hats, oven mitts—whatever you need,” a prisoner explains.) One featured prisoner, serving a life sentence for murder, is able to leave the prison every day on his own reconnaissance for work, and gets to spend weekends away from the facility with his family. He is on track to be paroled after 20 years of incarceration, which is the case for roughly 75 percent of those with life sentences.
“The real goal is reintegration into society, train them to find a different way to handle their situation outside, life without further crimes, life without creating new victims, things like that,” says Joerg Jesse, the director of prisons in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
Is the German approach working? Recidivism rates in Germany are about half what they currently are in the United States, at a much lower cost per prisoners.
“This is about human dignity—that’s where it begins, in our Constitution as well,” says Craig DeRoche, Prison Fellowship’s vice president for advocacy and public policy. Last year, DeRoche joined a contingent of policy makers and elected officials in touring German correctional facilities. “But for a period of 30-40 years, we’ve stopped talking about that when it came to the criminal justice system.”
From older prisons like Tegel in Berlin* to state-of-the-art facilities like Heidering (dubbed the “Five-Star Slammer” by German media for its contemporary look and feel), the sense of respect for the humanity of incarcerated men and women is evident. Everything is focused on preparing prisoners to return to their communities.
At one point in the story, reporter Bill Whitaker comments to a prison psychologist, “Some of these guys are monsters.”
“I wouldn’t say they are monsters,” the psychologist quickly responds. “They might have committed monstrous crimes, but they are not monsters as such.”
While it is possible that not all of the German reforms are translatable to American prisons (at the least, it would likely take decades to restructure prisons in the United States to resemble those in Germany, and perhaps even longer to change American perceptions of crime and punishment), there are plenty of lessons that can be learned. By looking forward from the beginning of incarceration with an eye on restoration, the German approach to criminal justice has better prepared those in prison to return to larger society. Perhaps more importantly, by seeing these men and women as capable of change, they have reaffirmed the humanity of the prisoners, and in turn given them the desire to reform. Such a change in attitude here in the United States would cost prison officials nothing, but could have a profound effect on rehabilitation and reentry.
To learn more about what Prison Fellowship is doing to support criminal justice reform in the United States, click here.
*Tegel Prison gained some notoriety as the prison that housed Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer for 18 months prior to his execution in 1945 for plotting against German chancellor Adolph Hitler. The improvements that have occurred there show that both prisons and prisoners are capable of being rehabilitated.