Lessons From Germany About Effective Prisons

While Norway appears to be the prevailing model for how to run an effective criminal justice system, the New York Times highlights another northern European country with a promising track record — this one far larger and comparatively more diverse than its more famed Nordic example. A mere glance at the typical German prison makes it resoundingly clear that Europe’s economic and political powerhouse, a nation of nearly 88 million, takes a very different approach to incarceration and rehabilitation.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

It would be scandalous to many Americans to treat prisoners so well. Everything from what they wear to the ambience of their cells suggests that German convicts have it far easier than they, or any criminal, should deserve. But the results bear out, with Germany doing far more than offering cushy and stimulating accommodations. 

While the United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, Germany — whose population is one-fourth the size of ours — locks up only about 63,500, which translates to an incarceration rate that is one-tenth of ours. More than 80 percent of those convicted of crimes in Germany receive sentences of “day fines” (based on the offense and the offender’s ability to pay). Only 5 percent end up in prison. Of those who do, about 70 percent have sentences of less than two years, with few serving more than 15 years.

The incarcerated people that we saw had considerable freedom of movement around their facilities and were expected to exercise judgment about how they used their time. Many are allowed, a few times a year, to leave the prison for a few hours or overnight to visit friends and family. Others resided in “open” facilities in which they slept at night but left for work during the day. Solitary confinement is rare in Germany, and generally limited to no more than a few days, with four weeks being the outer extreme (as opposed to months or years in the United States).

The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.

As in Norway, the Netherlands, and other countries with “infamously” humane approaches to criminal justice, Germany takes a pragmatic stance on rehabilitation: it is not about making convicts feel good out of some bleeding heart concern, as it is simply working to avoid the sort of harsh treatment and conditions that only harden criminal further, driving them to act out with greater violence or disobedience both within and without prison.

Dostoevsky’s observation that you can judge a civilization by the way it treats its prisoners holds quite true: the German model is reflective of the country’s penchant for self-reflection and innovation.

Germans, like Americans, are greatly concerned with public safety. But they think about recidivism differently. During our visit, we heard prison professionals discussing failure in refreshingly unfamiliar terms: If, after release, an individual were to end up back in prison, that would be seen as a reason for the prison staff members to ask what they should have done better. When we told them stories of American politicians who closed a work-release or parole program after a single high-profile crime by a released inmate, they shook their heads in disbelief: Why would you close an otherwise effective program just because one client failed?

As the Times notes (as do many readers I’m sure), Germany and the U.S. are very different countries in many respects, from history and demography, to society and culture. The Germans never had to contend with a Drug War on the scale and intensity of America’s, nor do they struggle (at least to the same degree) with the centuries-long legacy of racism, high inequality, and retributive justice that has contributed to the U.S.’s swelling and ineffectual prisons. Our political environment is far more amenable to the “tough on crime” attitudes and self-righteous one-upmanship that inform law enforcement policy.

But even given these circumstances, there is no reason why the U.S. cannot create a criminal justice system that is both fairer and more effective. As a nation every bit as dedicated to innovation, public safety, and human liberty as fellow democracies like Germany, the U.S. has the values, resources, and ideas necessary to make it happen.

The first article of the German Constitution reads, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” Granted, our own Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment and protects individuals against excessive government intrusions. As was noted by the Supreme Court justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a landmark 2011 opinion ordering California to reduce its prison population: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment.”

These words hold much promise, but currently they have far too little impact on actual conditions in American prisons. In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.

The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.

What are your thoughts?

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