Incarceration in Germany

What We Learned From German Prisons

EARLIER this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

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…

READ MORE: What We Learned From German Prisons, NYTimes

 

How wonderful to have another perspective on how to treat people behind bars! Germany has a totally opposite approach to criminal justice to ours, training staff for several years so that it can effectively help people to be successful when they are released from prison. At its heart, Germany’s philosophy of how to treat people who have broken the law is about human dignity. In the United States, we are primarily about punishment. The statistics in the article say it all about which approach is better—for people who break the law and for society at large.

Our current focus on prison reform cannot be only about fixing sentencing guidelines or releasing people who are serving draconian sentences for non-violent offenses, though those steps are necessary. As Nicholas Turner and Jeremy Travis say, we must re-think our values. Also, we must ask ourselves how mere punishment–often with long periods in solitary confinement, and without education and robust, positive rehabilitation programs, make it possible for people to get out of prison and automatically become good citizens with good jobs to support themselves and their families. The article says that German prisoners are “expected to exercise good judgment.” My prison students taught me the simple lesson that if I treated them with respect, they treated me—and their fellow students—with respect. When I raised my academic expectations and told them they were capable of good work, they became successful students. When prisoners are treated as bad, throwaway people, often their behavior reflects that.

The article points out the fundamental differences between the two countries. In spite of—or maybe because of–Germany’s history of the Holocaust, they need to treat protect the human dignity of their incarcerated citizens. The authors state, “Most notably, America’s criminal justice system as constructed in slavery’s long shadow and is sustained today by the persistent forces of racism.”

Our current system has wrecked families and communities, and the damage will be felt for decades to come. We have a long way to go to fix our overwhelming prison problem, but this information provides hope that we can begin to change our thinking and move forward in more hopeful, ultimately sustainable, ways.

What’s Alive in our Hearts?

This past year has been a terrible one for African-Americans—and for the country. It is hard to feel like we’ve made progress in bridging and mending our racial divisions—sometimes it feels as if we are falling backward when we see continuing deaths by police and see the violence and sense of hopelessness in impoverished inner cities. I see profound segregation in neighborhoods, in towns and cities, in states where white people live in different areas from people of color, and it feels like our landscape is made up of people living in separate circles who rarely interact, preventing us from the kind of dialogue that would yeild new understandings.

I’ve just read Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, a story of listening carefully to Dan, the Native American elder, and writing down what Dan has to tell him. Five lessons within the book are relevant and could help as we face the challenges of our racial divides.  

First, as the old man talks about the history of what has happened to native peoples, he says, “Look at what your way did to our people. When you came among us, you didn’t care what was alive in our hearts. You wanted to know facts.” [1]

Exactly. We have a multitude of facts and figures: the numbers of people killed and by whom, statistics around gun violence and suicide, and all kinds of polling data, especially since Ferguson in 2014. I don’t hear very much at all about what is in people’s hearts. Specifically, I don’t hear about people’s fears, among them the fears white people have about young black men and people of color in general, fears of violence or loss of jobs. White people need to hear how much people of color everywhere fear the police, fear that they cannot secure good jobs, fear that their children do not have enough opportunity in education or employment, fear that they cannot find adequate, affordable housing, fear that their children are hungry.

The second is in the story of how the land was taken and the vast differences between white people and native people regarding the land itself. Dan tells Nerburn that to natives, the land was the place where ancestors were buried, where sacred stories and ceremonies took place, and that the land gave his people life and life for the spirits. He says, ”The worst thing is that you never listened to us. You came into our land and took it away and didn’t even listen to us when we tried to explain. You made promises and you broke every one.” [2]

As I heard the stories of being African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American from my prison students, I heard the vast differences between being a person of color and being a white person in the United States. Learning to listen well to differences and caring enough to ask the right questions is hard and necessary work—but such a helpful first step.

The third lesson comes from Nerburn’s foreword where he talks about letting go of our own understanding of other people’s historical realities, their lives and the situations they find themselves in today. Nerburn writes about his time with Dan, Dan’s friends and family and says, “They literally and figuratively kidnapped me, and would not let me go until I paid the ransom of giving up my own understanding. They wanted me to realize that I had walked through Alice’s keyhole, and the world I had entered was not mine to reduce to the size and shape of my own understanding.” [3]

It is hard to give up our own perceptions and ideas of what we think is the truth. I love Aniais Nin’s quote that says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” My students and I were so lucky to have inmates who were not in our high school program visit and talk to us. Mr. Terrence was from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and came in to tell us about the values his people held and how wide the gap was between people on reservations and the general American culture. He said,

“Our young people have a very hard time when they are growing up. They must keep their feet in two places—one foot in your world and one foot inside the house with the dirt floor on the rez. If they leave the rez, they risk losing who they are and lose being Indian. That is a very bad thing. One of the problems with this is that white people think a dirt floor is a bad thing. They don’t understand that hundreds of years of culture are in that family and in that house.”

The fourth lesson is about guilt. We also need to recognize that many of us still harbor a sense of guilt about what was done to people of color in the past. Nerburn says in his foreword,

“I have never met an Indian person who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with anger and sadness at what has happened to their people, and I have never met an honest and aware non-Indian person in America who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited our continent before us. We can like each other, hate each other, feel pity for each other, love each other. But always, somewhere beneath the surface of our personal encounters, this cultural memory is rumbling. A tragedy has taken place on our watch, we are its inheritors, and the earth remembers.” [4]

In my prison classes, the issue of slavery brewed beneath the surface all the time. My students saw their incarceration as a form of modern-day slavery, and the cultural memories of slavery and Jim Crow came out in discussions of their family stories. One day, after an emotional discussion of slavery, Mr. Loving, an older white man, stayed back after class to tell me, “Mrs. Wenzel, it is hard to live in this place with so many young black men, and this is the first time I’ve recognized how guilty I feel about what happened to black people during slavery. I can sure see why black guys make this connection.”

I’m not sure that feeling guilty about things that happened in the past is useful. We weren’t there and we didn’t perpetrate the horror and damage done to so many people. I think it would be far more helpful to face the horrors of the past and learn how they are still alive and powerful today. It would also help to recognize how we as white people today still benefit from racial hierarchies and the institutional structures of racism. I wish there were forums in which white people and people of color could discuss their common anger and sadness about what has happened in the past. We would need a trusting space in which to do that.

Last, I am uncomfortable with the idea of enemy, because our politics of fear and anger put us in opposing camps all the time. I loved elder Dan’s idea of re-framing the idea of enemy after he sings a song in Lakota and explains it to Nerburn,

“I wrote it when I knew I wanted to speak. I went to my hill and spoke to my grandfathers. They gave me that song. They gave it to me in the wind. They said I had too much anger to speak. They told me that anger is only for the one who speaks. It never opens the heart of one who listens. There are good white people, they told me. They want to do right. They are not the enemy anymore. The enemy is blindness to each other’s ways. Put away your anger now, they said.” [5]

I refuse to believe that huge numbers of Americans are bigots, incapable of learning and respecting people who look different and have different experiences of being Americans. Recognizing and discussing our hopes and fears, in trusting and safe places, would be a huge step forward in the healing process. Reading books and aritcles by people of color would help too. I think we are capable of summoning our best selves: our courage to feel pain—the pain of others and our own, our openness to truth we hadn’t considered before, and our desires to make our relationships better. In the process, we could discover our common humanity.  We need to know what is alive in our hearts—and in the hearts of our fellow Americans.

more “What’s Alive in our Hearts?”