Sunday, August 9, 2015

German Prisons and Human Dignity

German prisons are popular right now with criminal justice reformers, non-profit organizations, and even some reform-minded American politicians.

According to a recent editorial in the New York Times by Nicholas Turner of the Vera Institute and Jeremy Travis of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Germany not only incarcerates individuals at a far lower rate than in the U.S., but German prison officials treat those individuals far differently than in the U.S. Turner and Travis highlight the fact that German prisons allow inmates to wear their own clothes, encourage responsible decision-making, and seldom use solitary confinement. 

While punishment in America seems structured to strip inmates of any vestige of humanity and dignity, German inmates live in rooms rather than cells, sleep on beds rather than concrete slabs, and cook their own meals rather than attempt to survive on the cheapest meals than prisons can provide.

Ironically, the American public that appears to crave television programs like “Lockup” and “Jail” that use a National Enquirer-like lens to paint a picture of life behind bars in America as some sort of spectacle in which the American public feasts on the brutality of prison life. Footage of correctional officials decked out in full riot gear entering into cells to “extract” non-compliant inmates, inmate fights, and officials finding contraband in cells apparently boost viewership.

Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that in some corners there is a debate about the value of these shows.  When “Lockup” visited Cincinnati to film life at the Hamilton County jail, the majority of community officials opposed the visit. Dan Horn of the Cincinnati  Enquirer described the show as “sort of the Kardashians with blood, death threats, snitches and a guy who stabs people with pencils.” According to Horn, while Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neill approved the visit, other county officials opposed it.  Notably, County Administrator Chrisian Sigman wrote  in an email to other county officials that “[i]t is highly unlikely that viewers of Lockup will visit or invest in our community after watching, in fact, I believe the show would have the opposite effect." To his credit, Sigman also denounced the show as being “dehumanizing and essentially us[ing] the misfortune of others for entertainment purposes.”

 While most of the county officials were worried that the portrayal of the county lockup would hurt the community’s economic fortunes, the jail officials apparently were more interested in showing the public their working conditions. To that end, the Sheriff’s spokesman told the paper that, “[o]verall, we believe it's a fair representation of life in the Hamilton County Justice Center and it gives viewers a small glimpse into what we deal with day in and day out.”

In contrast to the brutality and dehumanization in American facilities that seems to pervade our criminal justice system, American visitors to German prisons note that the centerpiece of the German correctional system is “human dignity.” But the difference between our correctional systems is broader than that, in the sentencing hearings and main proceedings that I observed in German, I noticed that both prosecutors and judges in most cases treated defendants, much more like the prodigal son or daughter who needed to be built up and reintegrated into the community rather than stripped down banished as some constructed “other.” As Nora Demleitner wrote in an article last year: “European sanctioning systems start with the offender’s ‘‘place in the community’’ rather than his relegation to a space outside society. Presumably that concept makes all actors in the criminal justice system more reluctant to remove the offender from the community by sending him to prison.”

The focus on human dignity can be extended beyond the criminal justice system towards governance in general. In particular, how does the concept of human dignity square with how American society treats the poor, the disabled, and the sick? Can we even square “human dignity” with the American myth that if you work hard enough, you will be rewarded? More on point, can we bring “dignity” to our criminal justice system, without bringing “dignity” into our norms of governance? 


Maurice Chammah, “Germany’s Kinder, Gentler, Safer Prisons,” THE MARSHALL PROJECT, June 17, 2015 at: https://www.themarshallprojec

Nora V. Demleitner, “Human Dignity, Crime Prevention, and Mass Incarceration: A Meaningful, Practical Comparison Across Borders, FEDERAL SENTENCING REPORTER, Vol. 27, No. 1, Ideas from Abroad and TheirImplementation at Home (October 2014), pp. 1-6 at 

Nicholas Turner & Jeremy Travis, “What we Learned from German Prisons,” THE NEW YORK TIMES,  August 6, 2015 at:

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