Life in a German Prison

No Jailhouse Rock in Germany

Long time-Two hands holding jail bars
Freiheitsentzug in der Justizvollzugsanstalt. Andrejs Zemdega-Vetta@getty-images

Shopping behind bars

Germany bases its prison system on two equivalent goals:  reintegration into society by enabling prisoners to lead a life of “social responsibility free of crime” and protecting society from further criminal acts by felons.  Imprisonment, i.e., taking away someone’s freedom, is punishment; at the same time, the system stresses the rehabilitation of prisoners to prepare them to live a law-abiding life after release.

Toward that end and in an attempt to reintegrate prisoners, prisons have instituted commissaries, i.e., shops, in which prisoners may shop just as they would if they weren’t imprisoned.  The rationale is that it’s important for an individual’s sense of self-worth to have ordinary, day-to-day items that they otherwise might not have.  Of course, prisoners may not buy everything they want from the prison commissaries, but they can buy quite a bit more than they can in other nations’ prisons.

Shopping as a form for reintegration

Each Bundesland administers German prisons  (“Justizvollzugsanstalten”—Justice Enforcement Facilities), JVA, under one overall federal law.  In most prison facilities, prisoners, using their own money, may shop in prison commissaries twice a month.  There are three possible sources for money:  a prisoner’s savings; a prisoner’s friends and relatives; and earnings from employment within the prison.

The German prison system requires prisoners to work within the prison, so most inmates have their own small monthly salary with which to make their purchases.  Inmates leave their cells for work every workday morning and return in the afternoon, when they have free time to socialize with other inmates, usually with their cell doors open.

  Only at night are they confined to their cells. One recent and rather famous example for this kind of imprisonment is the case of Uli Hoeneß, the former president of the soccer club "FC Bayern München".

There are many variations on this format.  For example, if a prisoner is in “U-Haft” (custody), s/he is not permitted to work and may leave the cell no more than once a day. 


Smoking permitted

One boon to German prisoners is that, unlike prisons in the US or the UK, inmates may smoke in their cells and they do a lot of that!  Also, because prisoners cannot have any cash (their commissary purchases are debited from their running commissary account), tobacco products, particularly individual cigarettes, have replaced cash as a type of currency in the day-to-day bartering among prisoners.  So, smokers and non-smokers alike buy cigarettes.  Inmate slang for a pack of tobacco and papers is “Koffer.”  I don’t know the genesis of the term, but it’s not unlike the English word “cougher,” i.e., something that makes one cough.

Instant coffee has almost the same use.  Inmates are permitted kettles, so extra coffee is always welcome.  Instant coffee is the second most coveted item by inmates.  Inmates’ third most coveted item is .

. . pornography and, although inmates are usually permitted to own DVD players, pornographic DVDs are not available in the commissaries.  Inmates must content themselves with explicit magazines.  It’s true that inmates may order so-called mature DVDs from the outside, but they’re not inexpensive and most inmates haven’t the money.

A few months ago, one of the largest prisons in Berlin, the JVA Tegel, banned pornographic DVDs, arguing that movies that degrade people to objects run counter to the goal of reintegration.  Inmates strongly disagree and the matter has been referred to the courts to decide.


Pushing a shopping cart in jail

Currency substitutes aside, there are many popular items that make incarceration a bit more bearable for inmates.  In the JVA Rosdorf near Göttingen, for example, REWE-Markt opened an outlet within the prison.

  Inmates push a shopping cart down the aisles and select their purchases from shelves.

Inmates buy a lot of chocolate and they particularly enjoy “Eintopf,” i.e., a traditional type of German stew which consists of a great number of different ingredients, almost always starting with broth, vegetables, potatoes or legumes, and, sometimes, meat.  For example, REWE offers Erasco Gulaschtopf Ungarische Art 800g in a tin for €3,59, Erasco Fleischgerichte Jäger-Hackbällchen in herzhafter Sauce 800g in a tin for €3,19, and Erasco Kartoffeltopf mit Waldpilzen 800g in a tin for €2,49.  Many inmates describe their twice-monthly shopping to be as enjoyable as Christmas.

In other prisons, commissaries will provide a delivery service for inmates every few weeks.

Those of us who aren’t incarcerated take many of these things for granted, but not the inmates.  If we bear in mind that imprisonment is punishment rather than the notion that inmates are imprisoned to be punished, we can have a better understanding of how vital is it that prisoners not be treated as animals, but be accorded as much dignity as possible within the prison system so that, upon release, grudges and rancor don’t translate to recidivism.

What do you think? Is the German prison system spoiling the criminals or does this all make sense to you?