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.

No Man’s Land

Two compelling stories have my focus this holiday season. One contains hope; the other anguish. The hopeful one is about the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in WW I, celebrating its 100th anniversary this Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorite historical stories to teach, especially in December when my prison students were lonely for home and distracted in the classroom. They loved hearing about it, and I still love reading about it—how the British soldiers heard the German troops singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve across No Man’s Land; how a German soldier lifted a Christmas tree, sparkling with candles on its branches, and moved out of his trench to approach enemy lines. How the British soldiers withheld their fire, how they crawled out of their trenches to reach out and shake hands with the enemy. Later, they traded treats from home, played soccer, and sang along with the Germans. Both sides were able to bury their dead. The truce was a mere blip in the four years of horror that spread across the world during WW I, but it has remained a symbol of hope and courage ever since.

The other story is about the lack of compassion as more black people are killed by white policemen. Instead of trying to understand what it means to be black in the this country, what the challenges are about raising black children, what I’m hearing more about is their “criminal behavior,” their “bad decisions” and that they “did it to themselves,” as if these killings are somehow justified. Unless people are living within the confines of fear, degradation, and economic oppression like so many people of color are, it is difficult to recognize their pain and fear, especially for those of us who live in the midst of white privilege. Many of us mourn the country we are becoming. It feels like No Man’s Land.

It feels like we are at war. We were discussing a foreign war in my prison classroom one day when a man asked,  “Why are we talking about that war when we have one right here—my city is a war zone.”

Thousands and thousands of people are behind bars because of our War on Drugs, its Black Hawk helicopters and war-like tactics used in our inner cities, almost always against people of color. In Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City and across the country—even in my own neighborhood, unarmed black people have been gunned down by white policemen—and so far, with impunity. The images of police in riot gear are seared into our brains. Recently I saw a huge army tank in my town with the name of my county—not my country– painted on its side. The police are scared—and often say so. Guns—and/or the fear of them–are omnipresent.

One of my students keeps walking around in my head. Mr. Bridgman was a tall, good-looking, young African American man, who carried himself well and was always neatly dressed. Like many of the men I taught, Mr. Bridgman needed a while to get used to being in school. When he joined my history class, I knew only that he had grown up in foster homes and dropped out early in high school. When he showed up for class the first time, he greeted me respectfully, then sat down and did almost nothing. Any written work proved that he was very capable, but he looked like he was zoning out and seemed to hear nothing, including my warnings that he was not earning credit. “I’m just not feelin’ it,” he told me.

The year I had Mr. Bridgman in history, we were studying WWI at the end of the fall semester. I handed out a page of statistics listing the countries that fought in the Great War, the amount of people engaged in the fighting, the war dead and the number of casualties. Mr. Bridgman liked math and asked for a calculator when he got the hand-out. He figured and figured, then burst out, “Mrs. Wenzel, more than eight and a half million people died! Later he figured out that they weren’t all soldiers. “Mrs. Wenzel, so many civilians died too!”

He was having a hard week, but he was waking up. Courageously, he did some more reading, discovering the devastation of the Spanish flu in 1918. He asked, “Mrs. Wenzel, how could this happen on top of all the people who died in the war. 20-40 million more people died from the flu! What about their families?” As I fumbled around, answering his questions inadequately, I saw that he was finally engaged in what he could learn. I saw some of his innocence peel away from his eyes, and I’m still amazed that it was the carnage of WW I that woke him up that semester. I don’t think it was just the overwhelming numbers, however, that so shocked him. I think it was his innate compassion that changed him. He was finally “feelin’ it.”

The Western Front in 1914 was the deadliest place on earth, but on Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides, who endured life in the trenches and aimed their rifles at ordinary people they did not know, needed a respite—just to feel human again. America needs far more than a quick truce. We need truth, and we need reconciliation. In order to get there, white people need to summon the courage to look back at our history and understand our long and complicated struggles of both personal and structural racism, the injustice, the anguish, and the raw fear that so many black people experience. We can start by at least recognizing that Black America is not lived or experienced like White America. We can wake up, ask and listen carefully, trying to understand and feel it as much as possible. Compassion humanizes. Its expressions, reaching across our great divides, could be a first step in the long, hard process of healing our old and open wounds. It could at least get us out of the trench.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow, Cover

Once in a while an author comes along, uses new language and exposes truths we hadn’t seen right in front of us. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander tells of spending several years as a civil rights lawyer before she began to see the nation’s prison system morphing into a new kind of racial control. Her well-researched facts and staggering statistics are not easy to absorb. Among them are these: no other country locks up such an overwhelming number of its racial minorities than the United States; more African-Americans are under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850, and 1 in 3 young black men will spend some time behind bars. She points out that though the majority of drug users and dealers are white, 75% of the people targeted in the War on Drugs have been poor and vulnerable blacks and Latinos.

She points to discrimination that is legal in housing, employment, and public assistance as people are released from prison–only to face overwhelming barriers when trying to put their lives back together. The denial of civil rights after incarceration, such as voting and serving on juries, gives people the message that they will never be full citizens nor will they ever be able to pay for the crimes they committed. She helps us understand how having a black president in the White House camouflages a permanent American racial caste system, not with outright racial hostility, but because it creates our racial indifference.

This is not an easy book to read, nor are these realities easy to acknowledge, but it is a necessary book if we are to dismantle the American tragedy of mass incarceration and understand how it devastates people’s lives and communities. It has cost us trillions of dollars and failed to solve our seemingly intractable problems of poverty, drug use, education, and mental health issues. The New Jim Crow shows us how our American ideals of freedom and justice are gravely imperiled and how our national moral character is profoundly weakened.

 

Published by The New Press

ISBN: 879-1-59558-643-8

Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer by Richard Shelton

Crossing the Yard:Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, written by Richard Shelton, is a rare look into the lives of people incarcerated in maximum security prisons. The book tells of Shelton teaching creative writing to prisoners in grim and violent facilities as a volunteer for thirty years. This memoir, written with tough-minded honesty, forces the reader to see the humanity in condemned and forgotten people, and this interface between a committed, compassionate teacher and eager students reminds us of what is possible when people find their voices–and sometimes a new identity–in the process of writing. The stories compel us to see “bad” people in a new, more whole way and recounts the satisfaction of seeing their poetry published in various books, projects taken on by both Shelton and his wife.

The acclaimed poet Jimmy Santiago Baca was one of his students. The book points to the success of art programs inside prisons, and how creativity, especially in the writing of poetry, has the power to both flourish and heal. In the face of constant frustrations when dealing with the repression of prison systems, Shelton is a model of tenacity and courage. Crossing the Yard gives us examples of the triumph of the human spirit, in both teachers and students alike.

Published by the University of Arizona Press
ISBN: 978-0-8165-2594-2
Available in libraries and at amazon.com