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Top German court to rule on prisoners' wages

April 28, 2022

Two prisoners in Germany challenged the state, arguing that the wages from their labor in prison are not enough to pay for debts and support their families.

The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe
The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe will hear witnesses in the case for two daysImage: Uli Deck/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's Federal Constitutional Court began evaluating the question of whether inmates should be paid more for their work while in prison. The hearing began on Wednesday, with court Vice President Doris König presenting the case.

Two prisoners from the states of Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia sued, arguing that prisoners are paid too low, which makes it hard for them to pay their debts, support their families and hampers their ability to reintegrate successfully into society once they have served their sentences.

The states defended the current prison wages by pointing to low productivity of prisoner labor, that many inmates have low educational qualifications, or are foreigners who cannot speak German well, as well as the number of inmates who have addiction or mental health problems.

"The key question is: Is remuneration an appropriate recognition in the sense of the constitutional requirement of prisoner rehabilitation?" König said, describing how the case related to federal laws.

Mounting debts and no pension

The plaintiff from Bavaria said in his complaint that prisoners often face many debts, in addition to leftover court and legal fees from their trials. Many convicts also have to pay fines or pay victims compensation and damages. 

Low prison wages do not make it possible to meet the various financial obligations, the plaintiffs argued. In particular, it makes it financially impossible to support a family.

Prisoners are also excluded from the pension system. This all amounts to falling back into poverty and dependency on welfare upon reentry into society, the plaintiffs argued.

What kind of jobs do prisoners perform?

Reforms in the system implemented in 2006 changed prison regulation from the federal level to the state level. Currently, most states require prisoners to work as part of their rehabilitation. 

Depending on the state and on the particular prison, inmates will work either for the institution itself, for external companies or perform household duties within the prison complex, such as cleaning, laundry or helping in the kitchen. 

According to the BAG-S, a German nonprofit that provides aid to convicts, the jobs often involve "very simple tasks with very low requirements."

How much do inmates in Germany make?

König said inmates' hourly wage hovers between €1.37 and €2.30 ($1.45 to $2.43), which would result in just under €11 to €18.40 per day. 

The wages depend on performance and the type of work, with very few inmates receiving the highest rates, König added. 

The state also pays into the inmate's unemployment insurance fund, while room and board, plus meals are also covered. Inmates are allowed to use three-sevenths as "household money" to purchase goods such as coffee, cigarettes or even sportswear.

Plaintiffs accuse states of 'profiting' from their labor

The plaintiff from Bavaria also accused the state of "profiting" from the prisoners' labor, something the Bavarian Ministry of Justice flatly rejected. 

North Rhine-Westphalia's justice ministry echoed the rebuke, adding that either way prisoner labor was "objectively not economical — nor should it be." Instead, inmates' work was aimed at helping increase their chances of reintegration into society.

For the next two days, the court will also hear from other experts on the matter, as well as prison managers and a representative of the prisoners' union.

jcg/sms (AFP, dpa)

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