Skip to main content
German Prisons

Gergman Prison Cell

Watching 60 Minutes' recent reprise of an earlier episode on how German prisons are run, inspired me to focus my attention on the broader issue of American criminal sentencing practices and prison conditions.

Let's be clear up front: Germany and The Netherlands and most of the European nations are largely homogeneous populations and generally do not face the kind of idiosyncratic problems that major American cities do. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for the sub-human treatment with which too many of our prisoners are confronted.

The fact is that American history is scarred with its inclinations toward violent, vindictive, and ruthless behavior. We have glorified novels and movies in which cowboys kill (often slaughter) Indians (Native Americans), in which Bonnie and Clyde-type gangsters viciously commit murder while audiences root for the bad guys; in which "Kill the Japs" was a rallying cry by many theater-goers during the post-World War II period; in which McCarthy hearing dupes betrayed innocent colleagues (based upon unfounded fears engendered by political hacks--think of people like Paul Robeson and Dalton Trumbo).

Yet, those same audiences are the first to push for law and order, harsh, heartless, oppressive punishments for even the most trivial of crimes There is little compassion for the mentally ill who commit crimes as a direct consequence of their untreated disease. Many young people who have been caught up in the criminal world, have grown up in highly dysfunctional families and have resided in predatory neighborhoods where gang membership seemed the only way for many to receive protection from other predators. These are children who have experienced beatings and incest and other indescribable conditions and felt they had nowhere else to turn in order to survive.

Furthermore, America has a long history steeped in racist-based policy which especially pertains to our justice system. We cannot ignore the impact that slavery has had and continues to have on the political and socio-economic development of this nation. In more recent decades, starting in the 1970s, legislators with the full-throated backing of millions of voters, have promoted the "tough on crime" approach to punishment, one largely based on fear of the other and most often affecting minority communities.

As a result of our own history, there has been greater emphasis on mandatory minimums over which, based on extenuating circumstances, prosecutors and judges have little or no discretion or leeway (lately, in some places such sentencing is being addressed for mitigation). In addition, unreasonably long sentences have been part of our penal system, as issue that cannot rationally and reasonably be justified. Poorly trained prison and jail guards are often intimately involved in promoting violence (or look the other way) which occurs all too frequently among prisoners. In addition, guards often demonstrate through words and deeds their own belligerence and condescending behavior over those whom they have control (and this doesn't even include how frequently such guards allow gambling and drug use and distribution within the prison walls over which they have oversight).

It is not in their thinking to befriend and show compassion toward prisoners; they seem to prefer demeaning and demonstrating cringe-worthy behavior toward them. In American prisons, solitary confinement is used as a strategy to control every word and action of the prisoner--many remaining in the SHU for decades (the maximum time in German prisons generally does not exceed 8 hours!). Interestingly enough and perhaps ironically, countries such as Germany look at our solitary confinement policies as an abomination and a perversion of justice.

On top of this, there has been the for-profit aspect of our prison system. Because expanding the number of prisons is in direct proportion to the increasing number of convictions, private prisons have been proliferating. And to make such facilities even more profitable, their lobbyists have urged legislators to pass laws which lower the bar for criminalization and thus raise the numbers being incarcerated. That is why so many in prison today are there for drug-related issues--incarcerating them for relatively low-level, minor offenses and, consequently, ruining their lives post-incarceration because of their prison records. (This is one reason, by the way, to vote Yes on Proposition 64, one result of which will decriminalize simple personal use and sharing of marijuana.)

It is true that what works elsewhere may not work with an equal degree of success here in America. Our system seems to be all about crime and severe punishment whereas many other nations with low recidivism rates emphasize accountability and rehabilitation; they promote dignity and encourage prisoners to acquire skills for an easy and effective long-term and productive re-integration into society.

America has the highest (and most expensive--despite questionable results) rate of incarceration in the world with a concomitantly high rate of recidivism. As a result, in recent years American justice leaders from broad cross-sections of society have been visiting European prisons for the purpose of not only observing what transpires there but with the goal of modifying our own practices to create more promising results. Systems such as those in Pennsylvania are already making positive changes.

So what are places like Germany doing (a nation with a horrifying past but one that has become a legitimate leader in many progressive movements)?

Sentencing practices are entirely different from what is found here in the U. S. Almost no sentences for any crime (excepting the most heinous and egregious committed by the most incorrigible perpetrators) exceeds 15 years (21 in The Netherlands). In Germany, the guards represent the cream of the crop of society. Among their ranks are committed lawyers, social workers, mental health experts (among other professionals) who are paid well--salaries commensurate with their qualifications and experiential backgrounds.

Emphasis is placed on humanizing the inmates. This differs greatly from America's prison strategies which allow denigrating prisoners--actions that push them further into a criminal abyss from which it is difficult for them to extricate themselves, a place in which no viable future is foreseen and a repetition of criminal acts is expected.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

The German goal is to help prisoners understand the environment into which they were born, the consequent anger and resentments that grew out of those formidable years…

The German goal is to help prisoners understand the environment into which they were born, the consequent anger and resentments that grew out of those formidable years; how different life choices could have been made and how future choices can be positive, constructive ones; how training for occupations and professions (with degrees) is encouraged. Inmates are urged to pursue vocational jobs while in prison and must save a percentage of their earnings to help them make the post-incarceration transition.

Those inmates who have proven their trustworthiness and reliability are allowed to work outside the prison on a daily basis (all of whom voluntarily return after work). Many are periodically given permission to leave the facility for a few days a year to visit with family and friends.

Such treatment creates a positive mind-set for those incarcerated. Not only that, but as a direct result of such positive treatment and interactions, violence within the prison is virtually non-existent among prisoners and between staff and prisoners.

Contributing to engendering positive self-esteem is the fact that prisoners are trusted. They each have a private dormitory-like room with their own keys. Guards knock before entering. The rooms are spacious with natural sunlight (many inmates grow plants) and have a bathroom apart from the sleeping quarters. They sleep on real beds with real mattresses. Their linens can be purchased or brought from home. They dress with a sense of pride in the styles and fashions which they prefer (unlike the god-awful, pink, demeaning uniforms and underwear that Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, makes them wear).

They have a phone to make calls to anyone (including family, friends, attorneys, media, etc.) and a television, radio, and computer (Internet access is not permitted). They can decorate their rooms as they please without fear that guards will raid their quarters and destroy items or take possessions away. Many have small libraries of books and magazines and study materials. They can cook their own meals (they also have access to a common kitchen where healthy, fresh foods are available). They earn reasonable pay for their work (unlike the 8¢ to 20¢ an hour "wage" that American prisoners make--from which a considerable amount of their earnings can be taken away for "restitution" and because of which the high cost of commissary items make needed purchases out of reach).

German prisoners are encouraged to maintain good health through exercise and eating nutritiously. Their medical needs are addressed immediately as a consequence of a ratio of one doctor per 127 prisoners (on average, the corresponding American numbers are 1 to 750).

Incidentally, Arpaio is now facing federal charges for contempt of court, an instruction which demanded that he refrain from racially profiling immigrants (which he has been doing, in part, to gain votes for his re-election campaigns). Despite the court decision, he has refused to comply with its requirements. Furthermore, he is also guilty of humiliating and degrading prisoners, many of whom, during periods of triple degree temperatures, he often "houses" in tents out in the scorching desert.

When American inmates are apprised of the dramatic differences in treatment, a sense of sadness, depression, and futility sets in. One interviewed American prisoner (who has been incarcerated since he was a teenager) stated that he felt that his life was over upon entering the prison and now that he knows how prison can and should be, the weight of prison life grows even heavier and more debilitating.

Based on the observations of the several delegations that travelled to Europe to visit its various prison systems, many have returned as enlightened leaders within the justice community and have become strong proponents in the subsequent struggle for fair play.

For example, Governor Malloy of Connecticut is an advocate for the "Second-Chance Society." Others from New Mexico and Wisconsin are seeking to address the cause behind the high propensity of incarcerating minority offenders at the same time that their white counterparts are often given rather lenient sentences for the same offenses (short terms or even probation or simple fines).

John Wetzel, head of Pennsylvania's prison program, has been a leader in reforming the state's prison system. He has tried to fashion many of the changes he has instituted based upon what he learned from the German prison system. Thus, guards are more highly trained (and, as a result, are adopting effective practices for working with those with mental health and other debilitating issues). Guards, he says, do better "when (they) understand the root cause of behavior." Pennsylvania is pursuing studies to comprehend what causes people to commit crimes in the first place and what can be done to prevent repetition of similar actions upon release. Such understanding can also help policing practitioners intercede to prevent commission of future crimes. Wetzel goes on to say "that public safety is a logical consequence of a good corrections system."

Rosemary Jenkins

Rosemary Jenkins

As one observer commented, "I think people can change. I think countries can change." With that in mind, we must encourage just, reasonable, merciful changes to our own system of justice--a system that must be more about rehabilitation and re-entry than retribution and revenge.

Rosemary Jenkins