What can US corrections learn from the German prison system?

With adequate funds for staffing and security, there are few attacks on correctional officers and little to zero use of solitary confinement in German prisons


By Gary York

“If you treat them as if they are your enemy, they will react as enemies. They will react as dangerous.” — Jorg Jesse, German Prison Director

On September 30, 2018, I had the rare opportunity to take a prison tour of the old and new Stammheim prison located in Stuttgart-Baden Wurttemberg, Germany. Although not perfect, the German prison system appears to be well funded and has less prison crime than the United States prison system, as well as fewer assaults on staff.

History of Stammheim Prison

Stammheim Prison is a holding area for an average of 877 male inmates awaiting sentencing. (Photo/Stammheim Prison)
Stammheim Prison is a holding area for an average of 877 male inmates awaiting sentencing. (Photo/Stammheim Prison)

Stammheim Prison was built as a supermax prison between 1959 and 1963 and began operation in 1964. Stammheim became famous when it housed leaders of the Red Army Faction (RAF) urban guerilla group. This group was housed in a special section built in 1975 known as the most secure prison block in the world at that time.

Supermax or not, contraband weapons found their way into the cells of the Red Army Faction and were used by four members to commit suicide. A pistol, used by two of the inmates to shoot themselves, was concealed in a book. Another used a knife to stab himself four times and another hung herself. To this day the stories vary on who smuggled in the contraband and why the inmates committed suicide.

Today’s New Stammheim Prison

The new Stammheim known as “Justizvollzugsanstalt Stuttgart-Stammheim” is a holding area for an average of 877 male inmates awaiting sentencing. After sentencing inmates are transferred to other prisons.

Germany has no such thing as federal, state and county facilities. Each state or city has its own prison and laws. Today Stammheim has one institutional manager and three assistant managers. All of them have studied law and served as judges.

For religious purposes there are three clergy. For other services there are 15 employees known as “Masters of Crafts” who are assigned to specialized skills such as metal working, building and painting.

The largest department is the 298 correctional officers and 30 active trainees working different shifts supervising 877 inmates. This is a high officer-to-inmate ratio compared to most prisons in the United States.

German Correctional Officer Pay and Medical Benefits

A German correctional officer trainee is paid the equivalent of $1357 a month, around 50 percent of the normal starting salary, which is $2,689 a month.

Every two years an officer receives a pay increase. From stage 5-8 officers must wait three years between each pay raise. At stage 9 the monthly salary taps out at $3,905. A married officer receives an additional $148 a month. For each child born after the first an officer receives an additional $262 a month.

After the front line rank of A-9 there are only two high-ranking, front-line officials, one A-10 and one A-11 earning up to $4,740 a month. With the present system most COs retire at stage A-9 or lower.

All salary is pre-tax and the officers pay about 19 percent in taxes. Officers must work 40 years in order to retire with 72 percent of their pay for pension.

The German government pays 50 percent of the officer’s medical bills and a private insurance company must pay the rest. The private insurance costs the officers $284 a month.

For religious purposes there are three clergy at Stammheim. (Photo/Stammheim Prison)
For religious purposes there are three clergy at Stammheim. (Photo/Stammheim Prison)

Training and Work Schedule

The training period for a German correctional officer is two years. The training begins with one month in the prison working with an experienced officer. The trainee then goes to school for three months for training in laws, communication skills, psychology, how to handle stress, self- defense, shooting and history.

Upon return from school the trainee will work as a full functional officer but remains in trainee status. During the next 12 months the trainee will learn how to work in every department in the prison. The trainee must also work at one or more prisons during this time to see how other facilities operate.

The last six months of training is back to school for advanced law classes, oral and written tests and practical tests. Upon completion of the two-year training the trainee is considered a full officer.

There is a three shift system with a 41-hour work week. Officers must work one weekend a month with three weekends off. When I spoke with the officers they seemed to like this schedule as it offers a good work-life balance.

Inmate Care, Custody and Control

On my tour of the prison, officer Martin, who asked that I only use his first name, took me to the old Stammheim cells and let me stand in each cell where the Red Army Fanction suicides took place. From 1975 to 1977, male and female inmates were housed in the same wing but in separate cells. They were allowed to mingle together during time out of the cells.

That is not the case today, as the new Stammheim prison only houses male inmates. I was allowed to walk inside the new prison cells, which look more like mini apartments. There are flat screen televisions in each cell and video games are allowed. There are private enclosed bathrooms, nice wall lockers and beds. Cell doors are heavy and secure, however unless there are disciplinary problems, each inmate has a key to their cell. The key can only open the cell door from the outside so the inmate may enter the cell. Once in the cell and the door is secure, the key will not work from the inside of the cell.

Officers are not allowed to carry handcuffs or pepper spray. Handcuffs and spray are available in the officer’s station if needed. Inmates are allowed to wear civilian clothing if they have them or family can provide them. The majority of inmates I observed were wearing civilian clothing.

Correctional officer abuse of inmates is rare. From day one officers are taught the consequences of abusing an inmate. In regard to internal investigations of the prison, German police conduct the investigation. Martin told me, “During my 15 years here, I never heard of a crime committed by a correctional officer.” Physical assaults on prison staff are rare but they do happen. I was informed that every now and then they get a “spitter” or an occasional physical altercation, but not often.

Solitary Confinement

The use of solitary confinement is rare in Germany. If a special case arises, the prison administration must ask the head of the Justice Department for approval to use confinement. If an inmate does go to confinement it will not be for more than three months. The average stay in confinement is 3-5 days. The concept used in Germany is re-socialization not de-socialization.

Average Length of Incarceration in Germany

According to German Prison Director Jorg Jesse, 50 percent of inmates are released within one year, two-thirds in two years and the majority of the remainder in four to five years. This is a huge difference from the United States prison system. Germany does have a few life sentences and some of the inmates have up to 15-year sentences.

German Prison Security

I was surprised at the privileges given to inmates, but very impressed that escape in Germany is nearly impossible. No one has ever escaped from Stammheim. Double gates are at every level and wing. The outer perimeter has a high concrete wall that would be hard to scale. The tall inner perimeter fence is lined with a generous portion of razor wire.

Cameras, motion detectors and sound detectors are everywhere. Adequate funds are provided to ensure the safety of the community. For obvious reasons I am not allowed to discuss the specific details of the prison’s security.

Security is a priority at Stammheim with cameras, motion detectors and sound detectors located throughout the facility. (Photo/Stammheim Prison)
Security is a priority at Stammheim with cameras, motion detectors and sound detectors located throughout the facility. (Photo/Stammheim Prison)

Security Equipment

The officer’s security equipment was up to date and in excellent condition. If an alarm goes off within the prison every officer knows where it is coming from by looking at their radio. Mandatory response times are set for everything. I was assured the emergency response times are met. If not, outside agencies are automatically notified and begin to respond.

Visitation

Inmates in Germany are only allowed two 60-minute visits a month. Juvenile inmates are allowed four 60-minute visits a month. This is quite different from our liberal visitation policies in the United States.

Remote Medical Treatment of Inmates from A-Plus Video-Clinic in Germany

Unless it is an emergency, language barrier or a security risk, inmates requesting a sick call are seen by the doctor via video conference. This decreases the amount of movement on the compound and saves manpower for other needed assignments. The inmate describes his illness to the doctor and the doctor decides what to do. The nurse on site with the inmate has the inmates vitals already prepared for the doctor. Nurses follow doctor’s orders. German medical nurses are not only certified in nursing, but are also certified correctional officers in order to maintain security awareness throughout the prison. A large number of inmates still have face-to-face doctor appointments however the pilot telemedicine program, which started in 2018, is helping reduce movement.

German prisons are receiving more inmates with mental illness and facing the same issues as the United States in that regard. When an attack does occur it is usually by an inmate suffering a mental health crisis.

Court Transport

Most courts are very close to prisons in Germany. The court for Stammheim was adjacent to the prison. Video arraignments are used as often as possible to prevent escapes and save time and money.

Comparison with U.S. Prison System

The American prison system is looked upon by many countries as punitive punishment. The German prison system is rehabilitative-centered. Human dignity is very important to Germans. In Germany, correctional officers and prison management are required to help the inmates better themselves. Specific rules state the prison sentence is the punishment and the inmates will not have bad housing or bad treatment.

How do German prisons operate with virtually no escapes, very few attacks on officers and little to zero use of solitary confinement? The cultural differences are huge between Germany and the United States. Could the German prison system survive in the United States? Can the United States use some of the German prison system ideas to lower escapes and assaults on our staff?

Germany is getting better results out of its prison system. With prison reform in the spotlight right now in America perhaps we should at study some of Germany’s concepts.

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