On Imprisonment: A Note from Germany

In response to my post “Kairos Time in the Prison,” my old friend and colleague Gerd Decke, a Pastor now living in Berlin, has written me a lengthy reflection on Germany’s history of prison reform. I thought it might be very helpful for the rest of us to reflect on their experience in trying to move to restorative practices in criminal law. Here’s what he reports:

The Biblical, Christian approach should be restoration rather than retribution. In Germany this has been practiced in criminal law since Gustav Radbruch, a most important German juridical thinker, a professor in Heidelberg and also Minister of Justice in the Weimar Republic: I quote from the German Wikipedia on him:

The Design of a General German Penal Code from 1922 and the Juvenile Court Law of 1923 were pathbreaking steps. Radbruch wanted to abolish retributive punishment and replace it with reformative measures. He was against the death penalty and the penitentiary and in favor of a uniform term of imprisonment. Re-socialization took equal place with security as the primary goal of punishment. These steps were introduced in only a limited fashion in the Weimar Republic but they became meaningful in the later development of penal law in the German Federal Republic.

The Wikipedia article maintains that Radbruch was conceiving this key idea of resocialization out of a Christian spirit. Resocialization has subsequently been the focus in German criminal law. Therefore, we also have much lower punishments than in the United States. For instance, murder entails a sentence of 15 years if there are no serious reasons to think the perpetrator would be a danger to society after that time. Then he or she can receive a life-long sentence of security custody (Sicherheitsverwahrung). The German Basic Law also eliminated the death penalty. Extremely important after the war was the so-called Radbruch formula of 1946 that turned jurisprudence from the Nazi era’s blind obedience to laws and required judges to decide against the letter of the laws if the laws are unbearably unjust or when they deny the basic equality of all human beings.

Generally, I know that in German prisons there is the tendency to give the prisoners an environment and treatment that gives them a chance to readjust to society after their release by offering them libraries, free time activities like games, music, sports, and religious care in services and personal spiritual guidance.

For instance, I found that the maximum security prison in Münster stresses that the aim of leisure time/ free time for the prisoners should be to promote their personal development and initiative. This will make both for more security for prisoners and personnel as well as social attitudes furthering community. The prisons offer the possibility of work (in 12 of our 16 states this is required for the prisoners), and getting practice in trades of all kinds and even engaging in studies.

In an article on the maximum security prison in Oldenburg (which has nice new buildings with security glass, no bars except for the outside windows and a park-like outside) I found the following quote, reflecting Radburch’s legacy, which is a great positive vision: “There is no better means to awaken the good in human beings than to treat them as if they are already good —that is our image of humanity, that is our practice and our philosophy. We have noticed that when we talk with the prisoners, when we take them seriously, when we demonstrate respect, when we are examples, then we can transform even the imprisoned. We have done that for over 25 years. Even when dealing with prisoners from 39 countries, with prisoners who cannot speak German nor English and whose language we do not understand, we find that they understand this principle and they all love it.”

I hope this principle will begin to infuse the prison system in the US.

Rev. Gerd Decke, Berlin

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2 Responses to On Imprisonment: A Note from Germany

  1. Nancy Sehested says:

    Thank you so much for this piece. We still have much to learn about the transformation and restoration of the lives of people in prison. Our prison system diminishes us all.

  2. Glenda Beall says:

    This is most interesting and sounds far better than what we have done, it seems. Thanks for sharing this.

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