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How German prisons have become a debt trap

October 13, 2022

Those who go into prison with debts walk out with even more. The rise in food prices has made life particularly tough for prisoners, making them more likely to re-offend.

A person speaking on a telephone seen behind the bars of a prision
German prisoners have been particularly hard hit by inflationImage: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild

There are about 45,000 people in correctional facilities in Germany, and they have been particularly hard hit by inflation.

Inmates can't check out special offers at the supermarket to get the latest bargains on bread, margarine, or sunflower oil. Nor can they go to one of the 1,000 food banks in this country, where people in poverty can get free food.

All they can do is tick off a list every week of the products they would like to buy — in addition to the free basic supplies — at prices that are far higher than on the "outside."

One company supplies almost all 160 prisons in Germany and whereas a bottle of mineral water can cost 19 euro cents (18.4 US cents) at a discounter, prisoners pay 34 cents — a markup of almost 80%.

Not on the political agenda

Unsurprisingly, very few people in Germany stand up for the interests of prisoners or warn of the serious consequences of inflation for this virtually forgotten group.

Juliane Nagel, a member of the Left Party in Saxony's state parliament, is one of those who does.

"The far too low rate of pay for working prisoners must finally be increased," she told DW. "Approximately 2,000 of the 3,500 prisoners in Saxony's correctional facilities are engaged in gainful employment, receiving a pittance of no more than €2.15 per hour for it, and yet they are not even included in the state pension insurance system."

Most prisoners work — in fact, they are actually required to do so in 12 of Germany's 16 states. They work in kitchens, in carpentry workshops or screw together components for locksmiths. And they earn between €1 and €3 an hour doing so.

Work in German prison
Prisoners have to work in 12 of Germany's 16 states, for a quarter of the minimum wage or lessImage: Felix Kästle/dpa/picture-alliance

The value of work

The idea is to teach inmates "the value of regular work for a life free of punishment." That's officialese for rehabilitation, meaning preparation for life outside jail, because working prisoners are not legally considered employees.

Many prisoners, on the other hand, see it as a sign that "honest work" is not worthwhile. The little money they do earn goes on personal hygiene products such as deodorant, shampoo, and razors, or telephone calls. Or they buy extras like fruit, yogurt and mineral water.

In the past, it was almost impossible to save anything in prison. Today, with inflation, it has become virtually hopeless.

Prisoners have now filed a lawsuit demanding adequate pay based on the minimum wage and for fairer food prices. Even before the war in Ukraine, prison prices were higher than in supermarkets, even though facilities are obliged to enable prisoners to buy food at standard market rates.

Rehabilitation or exploitation?

Manuel Matzke spent years ticking the lists to order extra food. He turned over every cent to somehow get to the end of the month and knows the pressures on prisoners like no other.

He served several years in prison in Saxony for financial fraud and is now the federal spokesperson for the Prisoners' Union association.

"We have a very tough exploitation of prisoners when they are in work," he told DW. "The pay for the products of daily life in a correctional facility are beyond good and evil. The hashtag #ichbinarmutsbetroffen ["I am affected by poverty"] could definitely be signed by prisoners in Germany."

Matzke is also familiar with the counter-arguments: The costs of the correctional system are high; prisoners do not have to pay for clothing, basic meals and housing; and prisons don't make a profit from the inmates' work.

But Matzke won't let that stand: "Prisoners are even worse off than welfare recipients, even though they are always told that everything is handed to them on a plate," he said. "They want to pay alimony, settle debts, and compensate victims. But none of that is feasible for them. We have price increases in prisons due to inflation, but prisoners' renumeration has not increased. That's an injustice that can't be communicated."

Manuel Matzke
Former prisoner Manuel Matzke is spokesman for the Prisoners' Union associationImage: Gefangenen Gewerkschaft/GGBO

Plan for pensions

Many people are already in debt when they enter prison, and when they get out they have even more. What's more, prison work does not count toward a pension, so the specter of old-age poverty lurks behind the door to the outside world.

Experts believe that the lack of pension entitlement is one of the main reasons why prisoners who have been released reoffend — almost half of prisoners commit a crime again during their first three years of freedom.

A change in the law to include prisoners in the state pension scheme is part of the current German government's coalition contract. It would be a long overdue step, said Matzke: "The debts of people who are in prison only increase more and more in prison. And even if you are released early, in most cases you have to have a criminal psychology medical assessment done, which costs you another €5,000 to €6,000. The bottom line is that prison is a vicious circle that you can't escape."

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.