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.  Continue reading