German youth prisons marred by violence | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.05.2013
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German youth prisons marred by violence

A new study shows that young offenders held behind bars in Germany rarely serve their sentences without getting involved in violence. Although alternatives are expensive, they may pay off in the long run.

Youth in Siegburg prison

Youth in Siegburg prison

Torture, rape and murder - a culture of violence is rampant in prisons housing young offenders, according to German media reports. Experts say that a "survival of the fittest" mentality can indeed be found in many prisons around the country, with weaker inmates left helpless.

"There are prison rules that forbid you to approach prison staff with problems," said legal expert Frank Neubacher of the University of Cologne. "You're only considered 'a man' in a youth prison if you are man enough to help yourself."

In a research project that ran from 2010 to 2013, Neubacher examined levels of violence in youth prisons in Germany. The results were worrying: among the 900 inmates interviewed, almost half of them admitted to having physically hurt a fellow inmate in some form. Neubacher told DW that although that's quite high, it's however "not really surprising."

Most of the young offenders in custody have experience with violence, and wouldn't go to a prison supervisor with a petty complaint, Neubacher said.

'Subculture of violence'

According to the study, 70 percent of those surveyed said they had inflicted psychological violence on others at least once. But it's difficult, Neubacher added, to identify typical perpetrator and victim roles.

"What's striking is that 70 percent have experienced being both the perpetrator and the victim of violence," the researcher said, adding that this points a spotlight at just how routine violence and repression are in German youth prisons.

Youth in cell of Adelsheim prison

"Closed" prisons can reinforce violent or anti-social behavior

Violence in youth prison made headlines in 2006 when three offenders at a youth prison in Siegburg in the state of western German state North-Rhine Westphalia tortured a fellow inmate to death over several days.

Entrenched violence in the prison environment makes rehabilitation - something that prisons are explicitly called to implement - nearly impossible, Neubacher said.

"The fundamental dilemma is the goal of leading prisoners away from crime and violence in an environment that itself is shaped by violence and lack of freedom," he said.

Neubacher said he doesn't believe that a classic closed correctional facility can change anything. A closed prison would be an "old-fashioned jail" where the inmates are locked away from society and contact with the outside world is closely monitored.

In a so-called open prison facility, inmates can, for instance, leave the prison to go to work. But they must then return to the facility after work. Under German juvenile criminal law, offenders can serve their sentences in a secure children's home, or in dedicated facility with fewer security barriers. Neubacher said he is in favor of more open institutions. The subculture of violence in prisons "has become so entwined with the place, it's as if it's rooted in the walls," he said, adding that the more closed a prison facility is - the higher the security, controls and pressure - the stronger the subculture of violence will be.

'Open' facilities preferable?

One model project, Raphaelshaus, is located in Dormagen near the western German city of Cologne. Since August 2012, selected youth offenders spend the last 12 months of their sentence here. But not all stay - right after it opened, the facility made headlines after three inmates escaped.

"They were homesick, but then went to the police after three weeks," Hans Scholten, director of the home, told DW. "They squandered their chance, and had to return to a closed prison."

Apart from the few youth offenders who run away from such dedicated correctional facilities, those who stay experience significantly less violence.

"The only fights we have are when someone commits a foul on the soccer field," Scholten said. And recidivism among those who are released is significantly lower, in part because they receive more intensive attention and greater opportunities to learn social skills. The five youth offenders who are currently housed in Raphaelshaus cook and attend school together, for example.

Youth at Seehaus prison alternative doing wood shop work

Learning skills can be an important means of breaking the cycle of criminality

Anti-violence training

Steffen Knippertz is working on another approach. The trainer teaches anti-violence courses at several youth prisons for the Violence Prevention Network.

Knippertz's courses on non-violent conflict resolution offer eight places each year per youth prison. And this is obviously not enough. "Around 80 teenagers apply for the [eight] spots in each prison," Knippertz told DW.

The project has been running for the last 12 years. Along with other training organizations, the projects reduce the reoffending rate by 70 percent, Knippertz said.

The courses cost about a million euros per year - which is not much considering this prevents the creation of more victims of violence, Knippertz pointed out.

However, the German government has apparently decided the program is of limited benefit, as it intends to allow the project to expire at the end of 2013.

Prevention vs. security

Neubacher pointed out a paradox between prevention and security, "Society is obsessed with eliminating every possible risk, yet still wants to uphold the principles of resocialization and social betterment."

Knippertz' next plan is to create the "Future Chances" home in the central German town of Stadtoldendorf. This would offer intensive training and counseling for prevention of youth imprisonment.

But the mayor and locals are less than enthused about the project. It has "stoked fears among residents because they think the youth criminals could roam through the neighborhoods," said Knippertz.

Neubacher agreed that always when something new is attempted, "there's still a little lagging behind."

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