A Life Between Drugs, Work and Hierarchy for German Prisoners | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.05.2006
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A Life Between Drugs, Work and Hierarchy for German Prisoners

Germany's 200 prisons hold more than 60,000 inmates and a further 14,000 awaiting trials. Apart from stray reports of drug rackets, almost nothing is known about life behind the high walls and barbed wire.


Very little is known about life behind bars in Germany

High gray walls topped with barbed wire, a watch tower every couple of 100 meters, a stringent security check before you enter and endlessly long corridors and series of steel doors before you reach the inmates -- Cologne's main prison fits the bleak image of slammers all over the world.

For inmates the day begins at six in the morning. Breakfast is followed by school, training or work and the grind is interrupted only by an half-hour lunch break. Prisoners can train to be hairdressers, seamstresses or cleaners. Nobody has to know later that they finished school or learned professional skills in a prison.

"Life is actually good here"

23-year-old Nathalie, who doesn't want to say why she's in the prison, said life here isn't bad. Her cell includes a table, chair, a television and cassette recorder.

"We even have a toilet and wash basin in our cells," she said. "Life is actually quite good here."

All inmates in the prison have to do some kind of work. Andi, 33, who works in an inspection center for electrical gadgets, works with a typewriter since computers aren't allowed in the prison for security reasons.

"This is where we keep track of the radios and televisions that inmates bring in and want to have in their cells," he said. "The gadgets are then sent out to a dealer and checked for illegal things like arms, drugs, money or secret information. If they're fine, they are brought back in and I seal them."

Privates Gefängnis in Nevada

Prisoners have to do mandatory work in Germany

The prisoners can also work in the kitchen, laundry, garbage disposal or in workshops where large external companies also commission work. The inmates are paid much less than what they would get for the same work outside. The maximum wage is about 300 euros ($385.8) a month.

"They have to save a large part of the wages for the time after their release," said Angela Wozlaw, deputy head of the Cologne prison, adding that they can use a small part for shopping.

But Wozlaw also said that the prisoners could only order what they wanted on a list and the items are then brought from outside.

Drugs a part of priso n life

Other than work and school, there's not much else the prisoners can do in their free time. They can use a library or do sports for an hour and a half each week. Some of them meet their lawyer.

Each prisoner is allowed to receive visitors for half an hour four times a month. The small visiting room with wooden tables is outfitted with mirrors in each corner to allow prison officials to monitor the meetings. Despite that the visiting room carries the risk of drugs being smuggled in, Wozlaw said.

Drogenabhängige mit Spritze

Many inmates only start taking drugs in prison

"I would be lying if I said we can prevent that," she said. "It's just not true. We could only do that if we completely sealed off the prison and stopped all human contact," she said. "For instance some visitors smuggle drugs in their mouth and it's passed on through a welcome kiss. Women who come to the prison often hide drugs in their lower bodies."

Even though it's not spoken of, drugs are a part of life in prison, said Wozlaw, adding that for many the prison is their first contact point with drugs. Drug dealers are often the most respected persons in the pecking order among prisoners, Wozlaw said.

"We've concluded that sexual abuse and rape ranks at the bottom of prisoner hierarchy, but rapists are still a notch above child molesters," she said.

Bei n g treated as huma n s for first time

Journalisten im Gefängnis p178

Will he be able to lead a normal life once he's released?

Prison official Peter Piontek saidthat scuffles and fights among inmates are a regular occurrence. As punishment, inmates are often confined to their cells for a week.

Many of them learn to eat with fork and knife in the prison for the first time in their lives and for others it's also the first time that they learn to stick to rules and have a fixed routine.

"For many it's really the first place where they are seen as humans and not just as scum on the streets," Piontek said.

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