Germany debates ′five-star slammer′ in Berlin | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 21.03.2013
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Germany debates 'five-star slammer' in Berlin

A new prison in Berlin has triggered a debate in Germany on the country's penal system. Media describe the new jail as 'five-star slammer.' But what kind of standards and conditions are there in German prisons?

There are large windows that let in plenty of light and the white walls and colorful floors give the impression of quite a lively and friendly place. At first glance, Berlin's new Heidering prison doesn't seem anything like a penitentiary at all. It's only the six- meter-high metal fence with barbed wire that signals this isn't a youth hostel.

The brand-new facility is set to open Thursday (21.03.2013) and in the Berlin media it's already branded the "five-star slammer luxury lockup." 'Five-stars' and 'prison' are not terms that generally go together, but the facilitiy's director, Anke Stein, tries to dismiss the criticism. "This is not a dungeon, but a modern Berlin prison," she told dpa news agency.

The individual cells are called "detention rooms" and give the inmate some 10 square meters to themselves. That's more than the legally prescribed minimum of seven square meters. In 2006, Germany's highest court decided that anything smaller than this would be an infringement on human dignity. Also, the toilets have to be separate and properly ventilated.

"This does not mean that seven square meters is a positive standard," explained Frieder Dünkel, a criminologist at Greifswald University. "The court has intentionally chosen to phrase it the other way round. If a cell is less than seven square meters than it's degrading. The standard in our facilities usually is ten to twelve square meters per cell." That actually means that the room size in Berlin's alleged five-star slammer still is perfectly average.

Barbed wire (photo: Tim Brakemeier dpa/lbn)

It's only the barbed wire that gives Heidering prison away

No countrywide standards

Those standards, however, are not written down anywhere. Also, in Germany, each state is responsible for it's own penal system.

"This federal system leads to states having different penal conditions," said Rita Haverkamp of the Max-Planck-Institute for international law. "It is a whole different thing if you're in prison somewhere in Bavaria or in Berlin." In Berlin, for instance, there are payphones the prisoners can use, while in Bavaria inmates are only allowed to make phone calls in exceptions and only under supervision."

Rehabilitation or protecting society?

"In Bavaria, the focus is on control; it is more the security aspect that's important," Haverkamp explains. That shows in the prison conditions. It is not just resocializing and social reintegration that's the sole main goal, but also the protection of society from the criminal. Critics see this as a turn away from modern penal principles.

"There is indeed an attempt in some states to move away from seeing a prison sentence solely as resocializing the inmate," confirmed criminologist Dünkel to DW. "But, at the same time, there's a joint proposal for a bill drafted by 10 of the state, all with the same goals. "

So, most of the states do want resocialization as the main purpose of prison, he says. "Protecting society is only a secondary aim and only counts for the duration of the sentence," said Dünkel, though adds that it is not the main purpose.

Prison cell door (photo: Marc Tirl/dpa)

Should a prison rehabilitate the inmate, or protect society?

Northern Europeas example

With it's ruling, the constitutional court has become the guardian of that modern approach to prisons. The standards of this modern penal system are positioned along the lines of international standards. "There are, for instance, the European guidelines on penal codes, or the so-called Rules for Juvenile Offenders," Dünkel explained. The main standards were developed by the constitutional court as vague terms and guidelines, so the penal code leaves a lot of room for interpretation, he added.

This applies to other binding rules on how to spend free time, the right to further education and professional training, the right to have contact to the outside world and the way that the prisoners are housed. The consequence is that there are different penal systems in the different states. "But you'd have to stress that the international standards are largely being met in Germany and in part even exceeded," Haverkamp says. "But it's not as though Germany is the country that has been setting the standards."

Northern European countries, especially, are seen as examples for modern penal systems. "We've adopted a lot of our methods from northern European countries or from Canada," Dünkel confirmed. "But I'd say that compared to other countries we're quite far ahead."

Dünkel can't understand the debate about the prison in Berlin. The size of the cells there is in fact on the smaller end of what's average in Germany. "It is not, after all, that penal conditions are supposed to be as inhuman or dark and unfriendly as possible. People have to be treated in such a way that they will be motivated to lead a clean life," Dünkel said, defending the new jail.

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