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Art Mediates Between Two Worlds

Sabina Casagrande, DW-WORLD.DEDecember 13, 2004

A unique project in Germany brings together high school students and young prisoners for common art lessons. Both sides profit from the meetings.

Artwork brightens up the walls in the prisoner’s cellblockImage: DW

Teenagers hover around various works of art, discussing whether to add a touch of color here or what title to give the piece. Another group takes a hammer, breaking their painting in half to insert a second level to the work.

It could be any classroom. Except this one has bars on the windows.

For over a decade, students from the Paul-Klee-Gymnasium in Overath have been coming to the correctional facility in Siegburg each school year for joint art class with young male prisoners.

Carolin, an 11th grader and one of the dozen girls participating in the voluntary project, admitted she was somewhat nervous the first time they came to the prison.

“I didn’t know what would happen here,” she said. But now, this had changed. “I think it’s a great experience to be here in jail.”

For the young men, the project Kunst im Knast or “Art in the Slammer” means a lot. They anxiously await the two-hour lesson every week.

“The consumption of aftershave is very high prior to these visits,” said the prison’s recreation coordinator, Walter Maringer. “Everyone wants to make a good impression. But the young women have understood to behave in such a way that the prisoners do not have all-too high expectations.”

Prison politeness

Those prisoners not participating in the program, however, behave in a more stereotypical manner. After crossing through several locked doors, the girls from the Paul-Klee-Gymnasium enter a courtyard with their two teachers.

Here, they are greeted with catcalls from these other young men, standing at the barred windows of their cells.

For Sonja, this reception threw her off the first time. She said she actually hadn't been nervous about participating in the program. Her sister had also taken part two years earlier and told her that she needn’t be afraid.

“But when they yelled at us when we came into the courtyard, I thought, oh, should I really go in there?” Sonja said. “But now it’s normal. You go there and it’s just, yeah, they’re screaming -- whatever.”

Bunte Wandmalerei säumt den Schulungstrakt im JVA Siegburg
Each prisoner has his own cell.Image: DW

Once you enter the school wing, the prison feeling dissipates. The inmates have painted colorful murals on the walls, brightening up the space between the individual cells.

The young men stand at the door to the classroom, well-groomed and very polite, offering the girls a handshake in welcome. With all this civility, you would think this was a church gathering.

The journey is the reward

Georg Fischer, the teacher who heads the project, said the prisoners are quite withdrawn at the beginning of the school year. But then they slowly opened up to the girls, as Carolin recalled.

“When we first came here, they didn’t want to talk to us,” she said. “Now, it has changed. When we arrive here, they’re very friendly and happy to see us. It’s great!”

The young men are making up their intermediate school education. Mehdi, a 21-year-old in prison for theft, said the project is interesting and exciting for him.

“For me, it’s a social exchange and can maybe help me for my life after jail,“ he said.

The contact to the girls, who mainly come from good families, is important for the inmates in this respect.

“Here, they can have close contact to integrated youth without them being presented to them as role models,” Fischer said. “They can see that there are other possibilities in our society to come to grips with something, not just with violence. Or when they deal with their girlfriends the next time, maybe they won’t be the big machos any longer.”

For Maringer, this is an important step.

“Many prisoners have learned that you don’t only have to talk about girls using vulgar language. In many cases, the journey is the reward, efforts are made to encounter each other without bias and that has actually succeeded.”

Read more about how art motivates the prisoners

It’s fun, too

Daniel, 18 and in prison for robbery, said the artwork is the main benefit for him personally. Jay, 19 and sentenced for driving without a license while on probation, agreed.

“The project is good because it’s a change of pace for us,” he said. “They teach us what we can do and learn artistically -- and that’s lots of fun.“

Ein gemeinsames Werk von Gymnasiasten und Gefangene, Teil von "Kunst im Knast", ein Projekt des Paul-Klee-Gymnasiums, Overath, und des JVA Siegburg.
One of the pieces of artwork jointly created by pupils and inmates.Image: DW

Karin Precker, the prisoners’ class teacher, said she is often amazed at the inmates’ high motivation.

“It’s nice to see what comes out of it artistically, here in prison, a place you perceive as being very bleak,” she said.

But you can tell that the young men also enjoy the girls’ company.

“We have good contact to the girls,” Daniel said. And Jay added they can talk about anything.

“We talk about how it is, what reality is like, just like we would outside.“

An encounter with reality

Kunst im Knast has been a huge success. But getting the project going wasn’t easy. According to Fischer, convincing the school board, the prison authorities and, of course, the parents were great obstacles to overcome.

“These students come from families whose parents are also judges and attorneys, so there were many doubts to resolve,” said Maringer.

It is precisely because of the girls’ backgrounds that this experience is so important for them, as well.

“It really helps them further in their personal development,” Fischer said. “It is a very significant realization for them to see that there are socially disadvantaged groups, there are youth, who have problems -- basically, it’s reality. For them to have very close contact to this reality is a valuable starting point.”

"They are normal"

Carolin said the project has helped her overcome any prejudices she may have had.

“I definitely think some of the guys look very strange and if I had met them on the street, I would have turned around and walked away as fast as I can," she said. "But here in jail, it’s a little bit different because I know nothing can happen to me and I’m safe. So I can talk to anyone. It’s no problem.”

JVA Siegburg (Nov. 2004)
One of the many locked doors at the Siegburg facility.Image: DW

Still, Sonja said it’s hard to forget what they’ve done. But they’re still just regular guys.

“Yes, they have different thoughts, but they are normal," she said. "They are just youngsters like us and I think it’s very important to show them that we like them instead of what they’ve done.”

The two-hour class is over quickly. Everyone cordially shakes hands.

“Bye, see you next week,” they call to each other. For the prisoners, it’s back to their everyday lives in the cellblock -- until next week.