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Germany's Graying Gangsters

Kyle James, DW-WORLD.DEDecember 28, 2004

Criminality among German senior citizens is on the rise. Many offenses are petty, such as shoplifting and traffic violations, but some are more serious. One state plans to open a prison designed for older offenders.

The number of seniors behind bars is risingImage: AP/DW

One female pensioner in western Germany has decided to fill the autumn of her life with something other than baking pies or watching the sunset from the warmth of her back porch.

Oma auf Beutezug
"Pistol granny" during a robbery in 2001. The woman was never caughtImage: dpa

She is out gathering some cold, hard cash by robbing banks, at least four in the last four years. From the images captured on security cameras, "pistol granny," as she's been christened by tabloids, has passed her 70th birthday already.

In November, police busted a fairly successful gang of bank robbers who had taken in €400,000 ($541,000) in the last five years. The three men, who demonstrated their seriousness to bank employees with pistols, sledge hammers and hand grenades, were aged 63, 72 and 74.

“There is an increase in the number of elderly people committing crimes and we have to face this problem,” said Jutta Rosendahl of the justice ministry in the state of Lower Saxony. Officials there are working out plans for the country’s first prison designed exclusively for the over 60 set.

A slammer for seniors

The justice ministry wants to turn a jail in need of renovation near the town of Bückeburg into a low-security institution exclusively for older criminals, whose needs and interests are different than those of younger offenders, officials believe. Graying prisoners generally aren’t as interested in body building or basketball as they once were, and the prison for seniors would instead have physical therapy on offer and be outfitted ramps that make life easier for wrongdoers in wheelchairs.

Jobs in the old-age prison would be appropriate for those retirement age or older. Gone would be the physically demanding positions in the prison laundry or metal shop. The focus in the seniors slammer would be on assembly work felons can perform sitting down.

Social programs would also be different. Those over 60 have little need for high school diplomas or traineeships. Instead, resocialization programs would focus on practical needs, like basic living and cooking skills.

“It won’t be a wellness farm for elderly people,” Rosendahl said. “But it will address their special problems and give them a better chance at having a normal life after being released from prison.”

Rising numbers

While little data about aged lawbreakers exists, Germany’s statistics office reports criminality among older people has risen some 28 percent since the mid 1990s. The number of elderly people doing time behind bars is also on the increase. While the number of 18 to 21-year-olds in German prison declined slightly between 2001 and 2003, the number of prisoners over age 60 has risen by over 400.

Criminologists and justice officials insist the jump in numbers does not mean German is experiencing a gray crime wave, but they do say that there are several developments in Germany leading more grandmas and grandpas outside the law.

Vier Rentnerinnen
Image: AP

One reason is simple demographics: German society in general is getting older, meaning the pool of possible criminals from the upper age group is getting larger every year.

“The more elderly people you have in a country, the more elderly criminals you’ll have,” said Arthur Kreuzer, the director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Giessen.

Poverty as driver

Another reason is the changing quality of life among many seniors in Germany. Poverty rates among older people have been inching up as prices rise and pension rates remain stagnant or the incremental increases fail to keep up with inflation.

“Older people have to get by with less and less money and some are almost forced to resort to shoplifting just to maintain a reasonable standard of living during their retirement,” said Frank Geppert, a social worker at Freie Hilfe Berlin, an organization that helps prisoners reintegrate into society after they’ve been released.

Image: BilderBox

Experts also say that as family bonds weaken in Germany and state-supported programs for seniors fall victim to budget cuts, older people are becoming increasingly isolated. Some resort to petty crimes like shoplifting just for the thrill of it, seeing it almost as an adventure to spice up an otherwise colorless existence. Others hope to get caught, happy that someone, security personnel in these cases, is paying attention to them since generally, no one else does.

While gray crime includes everything from fraud and extortion to sexual abuse and murder, most are petty offenses. According to criminologist Kreuzer, shoplifting makes up 80 percent of senior cases.

More isolation

Justizvollzugsanstalt Brandenburg Stacheldraht
Image: AP

But not everyone thinks the old-age prisons are a good idea, fearing they could lead to even more isolation. According to Berlin social worker Geppert, one of the goals of German prisons is to have a mix of people and ages that represents, as closely as possible, the society on the outside. A prison for the elderly would take prisoners one more step away from the normal world.

“It would be like an old folks home and the ones who were still mentally alert would feel shut away with a lot who might already be senile,” he said. “They’d have no communication with young people, and that’s not good for them.”

Peter Rausch, 72, is of two minds on the prison matter, a topic he knows all too well. He went to jail for the first time at the age of 17 and has been in and out of incarceration all his life. He was over 60 when he finished his last sentence and still has occasional brushes with the law.

Gefängnis Wärter schließt eine Tür
Image: AP

He’s still active and in good health and worries that if he were put in an institution with elderly people, some of whom were infirm, he’d end up looking after them or, worse, acting like them. On the other hand, if he had to do time again, a place with an older clientele might not be all that bad.

“Not that I’m ready to check in or anything,” he said. “But I wouldn’t mind having it a little quieter in the klink next time, getting to shuffle around in my slippers.”