Prison violence in Germany a part of life | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.11.2012
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Prison violence in Germany a part of life

Injury, abuse, sexual violence, threats and even murder are common in German prisons, according to a recent survey of inmates. Improving the living conditions is difficult.

The findings of a recent survey from the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony are shocking, detailing acts of brutal violence on prisoners.

Prisoners were forced to swallow water mixed with salt, shampoo and toothpaste until they vomited. Then, they were forced to eat the vomit, or drink urine. Other prisoners were raped in dark corridors and beaten by fellow inmates.

In 2006, a 20-year-old prisoner at the Siegburg prison was hanged by fellow cellmates; in court, the perpetrators said they just wanted to see a man die. About 10 percent of the approximately 70,000 inmates across Germany took part in the survey.

Violence a daily occurrence

A quarter of all the men and women surveyed had experienced some form of violence in the four weeks before the study. Among younger prisoners, that number was more than half.

Joe Bausch. Foto: Frank May/picture alliance

Bausch says society has failed to help violent criminals

Law enforcement officials have repeatedly spoken of certain pecking orders and organized power structures in prisons. According to prison guards, this violence comes mainly in the form of extortion, mostly to do with drug distribution. Those who don't play along with the rules must deal with the so-called enforcers, often in the form of multiple attackers.

"Many of the prisoners in jail today are neglected, have no social ties and are not at all able to function in society," said Hermann-Joseph Bausch, a doctor in the Werl und Hamm correctional facility for the last 25 years. "Society has failed these people, and in the one or two years they spend behind bars, on average, we're not able to change them either. This is asking too much."

Bausch, also known as Joe, has written about prison conditions in his book, "Knast" (a slang term for jail). He says one reason for the violence is that over a third of the prisoners in German jails are serving sentences for violent offenses. "We cannot always prevent violence among this sort of clientele," said Bausch candidly.

However, extreme forms of humiliation, subjugation and rape are rare. Anton Bachl, the chairman of the German Association of Prison Officers, does not deny that attacks and harassment among prisoners is common, but he is critical of the institute's study. "Insults should not be counted as forms of violence," said Bachl.

Countermeasures are difficult

Since the release of the study, prison officials have begun to develop strategies to defuse the situation. "Much has since been significantly improved," said Bausch. For example, dark corners in communal showers have been removed. And now, before new prisoners are moved into a communal cell, a compatibility analysis is undertaken as sort of an early warning system, he added.

A prisoner is held by two guards. Foto: Oliver Killig dpa/lsn

Officials have been developing strategies to reduce prison violence

Prison violence is now punished more consistently and rigorously than before, and supervisory staff are better trained and seen as trusted contacts. The study has confirmed this, and noted a growing number of courageous displays against violent criminals.

Nevertheless, many violent acts still go undetected because they are not reported. Bachl says there are still too few prisoners in Germany with their own cells, even though this has been a goal for many years. And Bachl warns cutting prison staff. At the moment in German prisons, there is usually one staff member for every two prisoners, costing around three to four billion euros every year.

Open prison experiment failed

The state government of North Rhine-Westphalia attempted to reduce prison violence with an experiment that put young offenders in so-called "open prisons" where they were supervised by educators and prepared for life after serving their sentence. The pilot project featured a residential community without cells, fences or walls, and was intended to reduce recidivism by nearly 60 percent. Unfortunately, many of the prisoners seized the chance to escape.

Neither Bausch nor Bachl have much hope that a reduction in violence can be sustained. "But it is necessary that we continue to engage," said Bausch. More sporting options, for example, would take a lot of pressure off the prisoners.

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