The German Constitutional Court paves the way for a former inmate to seek damages on the basis that prison conditions in Cologne violated his human dignity.
Overcrowded prisons shouldn't take on more prisoners, court said.
Prisoners held in conditions that violate their human dignity could be set free if their situation is not addressed, according to a ruling by the German Constitutional Court. It’s not the first time the highest German court has criticized prison conditions, but after Wednesday’s ruling, judges may now take action.
The court said that if no suitable prison accommodation was available, the state should relinquish its right to punish in this way.
"This is the first time the court has so clearly defined what constitutes dignified prison conditions. And it's the first time they have specified that [without them] the state loses its right to punish. This must be put to use now," Thomas Schellenberg from the German Criminal Defense Association said.
Unbearably small and smelly
The Constitutional Court decided in favor of a former inmate who spent 151 days in an eight square meter cell with another prisoner and no separate bathroom facilities.
"If these were the conditions that the prisoner endured, then it would constitute a violation of his human dignity," a spokesperson for Amnesty International told Deutsche Welle.
The court ruled that each inmate should have a minimum of six to seven square meters of floor space each.
The 27-year-old prisoner said he spent 23 hours of almost every day in the shared cell. He says his cellmates were heavy smokers, who were only allowed to shower twice a week. Their shared toilet was only separated from the rest of the room by a wooden partition.
"This led to an unbearable mixture of smoke, body odors and toilet smells," he complained.
Applications to be put in a single cell were not successful.
Covering the legal costs
The court also ruled that prisoners can claim legal aid when they seek damages against inhumane prison conditions.
"This is right and totally consistent. You can't say, the accommodation violates human dignity and then deny someone of their entitlement to seek damages," said Stefan König, chairman of the criminal law committee of the German law society.
Prisoners will now get a chance to sue for damages
The plaintiff had previously sought legal aid from the district court in Cologne, so that he could pursue legal proceedings to claim damages against the state of North Rhine Westphalia. But legal aid was denied him because the court ruled that the prison conditions did not violate his human dignity. The judge also did not think he was likely to be awarded any damages.
The plaintiff appealed to the Cologne court of appeals, but this was also dismissed. So he took his case to the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, where the judges quashed the previous judgments.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the prison conditions did fulfill the criteria for a violation against human dignity.
The court said that if prisons could not find dignified accommodation for inmates, then they "should immediately cease to employ imprisonment as a punishment".
The case will now be referred to the Cologne District Court.
The Ministry of Justice for the state of North Rhine Westphalia sees no need to take action on the issue of prison conditions. 800 cells with partitioned toilets have already been renovated, according to a spokesperson for the state.
Author: Natalia Dannenberg (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Rob Turner