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German Prison System VS United States Prison System
By Gary York
Published: 12/17/2018

German prison

The idea of finding a perfect prison system to suit everyone’s needs in my opinion is not realistic. Although not perfect I recently discovered that the German prison system appears to have good funding and less prison crime than the United States Prison system as well as less assaults on staff. On September 30th, 2018 I had the rare opportunity to take a private prison tour of the old and new Stammheim prison located in Stuttgart-Baden Wurttemberg, Germany.

History of Stammheim Prison

Stammheim prison was built as a supermax prison between 1959 and 1963 and began operation in 1964. Stammheim became famous when it housed the leading members of the Red Army Faction (RAF) Urban Guerilla Group. This group was housed in a special section built in 1975 known as the most secure prison block in the world at that time.

Supermax or not, contraband (weapons) found their way into the cells of the Red Army Faction and were used by four members to commit suicide. A pistol was concealed in a book which was used by two of the inmates to shoot themselves. Another used a knife to stab himself four times and another hung herself. To this day the stories vary on who smuggled the contraband and why the suicides were committed.

Today’s New Stammheim Prison

The new Stammheim known as “Justizvollzugsanstalt Stuttgart-Stammheim” is a holding area for an average of 877 inmates all men awaiting sentencing. After sentencing they will be transferred to the prison responsible for them.

Germany has no such thing as federal, state and county facilities. Each state or city has its own prison and laws. Today Stammheim has one institutional manager, and three assistant managers. All of them have studied law at the university and where all judges at one time.

For religious purposes, there are three priests, catholic and protestant. For other services there are fifteen employees known as “Masters of Crafts” who are assigned to specialized skills such as kitchen, metal working, building, painting etc.

The largest department of course is the 298 correctional officers and 30 active trainees working different shifts supervising 877 inmates. A very good officer to inmate ratio compared to most of our prisons in the United States.

German Officer Payment and Medical Benefits

A German Correctional officer trainee is paid 1,192.89 Euros a month, around 50 percent of the normal starting salary which is 2,361.34 Euros a month. The United States dollar equals 0.88 Euro at the time of this article. An example would be for a Euro you can get a $1.15 U.S. At stage 9 the monthly salary taps out at 3,428.00 Euros.

Every two years an officer receives a pay increase. From stage 5-8 officers must wait three years between each pay raise. A married officer receives an additional 130 Euros a month. For each child born after the first an officer receives an additional 230.00 Euros a month.

After the front line rank of A-9 there are only two high ranking front-line officials, one A-10 and one A-11 earning up to 4, 160.97 Euros a month. With the present system the majority obviously retires at the stage A-9 or lower.

All salary is before tax and the officers pay about 19 percent in taxes. Officers must work 40 years in order to retire with 72% of their pay for pension.

The German Government pays fifty percent of the officer’s medical bills and a private insurance company must pay the rest. The private insurance costs the officer’s 250.00 Euros a month.

Training and Work Schedule

The training period for a German correctional officer is two years. The training begins with one month in the prison working with an experienced officer. The trainee then goes to school for three months for training in laws, communication skills, psychology, how to handle stress, self- defense, shooting and history.

Upon return from school the trainee will work as a full functional officer but remains in trainee status. During the next twelve months the trainee will learn how to work every department in the prison. The trainee must also work at one or more prisons during this time to see how other facilities operate.

The last six months of training is back to school for advanced law classes, oral and written tests and practical tests. Upon completion of the two year training the trainee is now considered a full officer.

German officers do not do online training as they prefer face to face training. Classes are available for the officer’s to sign up for to help advance their career.

The work schedule for the officers is set up very well. There is a three shift system with a 41 hour work week. Officers must work one weekend a month with three weekends off. When I spoke with the officers they seem to like this schedule which gives them time for family and stress relief.

Inmate Care, Custody and Control

On my tour of the prison officer Martin who asked that I only use his first name took me to the old Stammheim cells and let me stand in each cell that the Red Army Fanction suicides took place. During that time period 1975 to 1977 male and female inmates were housed in the same wing but separate cells. They were allowed to mingle together during time out of the cells.

That is definitely not the case today. The new Stammheim is all male inmates. I was allowed to walk inside the new style prison cells which looked more like mini-apartments. Flat screen televisions in each cell and play station games allowed. Private enclosed bathrooms, nice wall lockers and beds. My first thought was how these cells are better than I had in the Army barracks. The cell doors are very heavy and secure however each inmate unless a disciplinary problem had their own key to their cell. The key can only open the cell door from the outside so the inmate may enter the cell. Once in the cell and the door is secure the key will not work from the inside of the cell.

Officers are not allowed to carry handcuffs or pepper spray. The handcuffs and spray are available in the officer’s station if needed. The inmates are allowed to wear civilian clothing if they have them or family can provide them. From my personal observation it appeared to me 95 percent of the inmates had civilian clothing.

I was informed that abuse of inmates is basically unheard of. Officers are taught from day one the consequences of abusing an inmate. In regard to internal investigations of the prison, the German Police (Street Police) conduct the investigation. Martin told me “To be honest, during my time here 15.5 years I never heard of a crime committed by a correctional officer”. Physical assaults on prison staff are very rare but they do happen. I was informed that every now and then they get a “spitter” or an occasional physical altercation but not often.

Solitary Confinement

The use of solitary confinement is very rare in Germany. If a special case arises the prison administration must ask the head of the justice department for approval to use confinement. If an inmate does go to confinement it will not be for more than 3 months. The average stay in confinement is 3-5 days. The concept used in Germany is Re-socialization not De-socialization.

Average Length of Incarceration in Germany

According to German prison director Jorg Jesse 50% of inmates are released within one year, 2/3rds in two years and the majority of the remainder in four to five years. This is a huge difference from the United States Prison system. Germany does have a few life sentences and some of the inmates have up to fifteen year sentences.

German Prison Security

I was very surprised with how inmates are given many more privileges than U.S. inmates but very impressed that escape in Germany is not an option. Clint Eastwood could not even escape from this prison. No one has ever escaped from Stammheim. Double gates are at every level and wing. The outer perimeter has an extra high concrete wall that would be very hard to scale if even possible. The tall inner perimeter fence is lined with a generous portion of razor wire.

Top of the line technology is everywhere with cameras, motion detectors and sound detectors. The funds are provided to ensure the safety of the community. For obvious reasons I am not allowed to discuss the fine details of the prison security.

Security Equipment

The officer’s security equipment was all up to date and in excellent condition. If an alarm goes off within the prison every officer knows where it is coming from immediately by looking at their hand held radio. Mandatory response times are set for everything. I was assured the emergency response times are met. If not outside agencies are automatically notified and begin to respond.

Visitation

Inmate visitation in Germany is only twice a month for 60 minutes each visit for adults. Juvenile inmates are allowed four visits a month for 60 minutes each. This is quite different from our liberal visitation policies in the United States.

Remote Medical Treatment of Inmates from A-Plus Video-Clinic in Germany

Unless it is an emergency, language barrier or a security risk, inmates requesting sick call are seen by the doctor via video conference. This decreases the amount of movement on the compound and saves manpower for other needed assignments. The inmate describes his illness to the doctor and the doctor decides what to do. The nurse on site with the inmate has the inmates vitals already prepared for the doctor. Nurses follow doctor’s orders. It is important to note that the German medical nurses are not only certified in nursing but are also certified correctional officers. This is done in order to maintain security awareness throughout the prison. There are still a large number of inmates that have face to face doctor appointments however this pilot program that started this year is helping reduce movement.

Court Transport

Transportation to court in Germany is still done with inmate movement. The good news is that most of the courts are very close to the prisons. The court for Stammheim was adjacent to the prison. Court by video is used as often as possible to save manpower, prevent escapes and save time and money.

Immigration and Crime in German Prisons

Overall disturbances and incidents in the prison are not on the increase even with a large number of refugee inmates. According to “Wikipedia”; “Crimes by foreigners has been a long standing theme in public debates in Germany”. This was my question when I saw an overwhelming number of non-Germans during the prison tour. Prison officials told me that politics cannot be discussed.

German prisons are receiving more and more inmates with mental illness and are facing the same issues as the United States in that regard. When an attack does occur it is usually from a mental health inmate.

German Laws Regarding Prison
  1. There is no death penalty
  2. Officers and prison management are required to help the inmates better themselves
  3. Specific rules state the prison sentence is the punishment and the inmates will not have bad housing or bad treatment
  4. Inmates must remain secure so they are no longer a danger to society
Comparison with U.S. Prison System

The American prison system is looked upon by many countries as punitive punishment. The German prison system is rehabilitative centered with the focus on humanity and second chances. Human dignity is very important to the Germans. How do German prisons operate with no escapes, very few attacks on officers and little to zero use of solitary confinement? The cultural differences are huge between Germany and the United States. Could the German prison system survive in the United States? Can the United States use some of the German prison system ideas to lower escapes and assaults on our staff? These are all questions we must look into. Germany is getting better results out of their prison system, we cannot deny that fact. Germany uses the concept of do not be aggressive toward inmates and show them there is a different kind of conversation possible. I am not sure if our American culture of inmates and policing is willing to try these concepts. Prison reform is on the hot seat right now in America so maybe we should at least study some of Germany’s concepts.

“If you treat them as if they are your enemy, they will react as enemies. They will react as dangerous” ( Jorg Jesse, German Prison Director)

Gary York is a retired Senior Prison Inspector and is an Ethics and Crisis Intervention Instructor. He is also the author of the books "Corruption Behind Bars" and "Inside the Inner Circle".

Other Articles by Gary York.


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