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So, you’re going to jail… What are Berlin prisons really like?

You’ve done the crime, now you’ve got to do the time. But what are conditions actually like in Berlin’s prisons? We asked criminal defence attorney, Sandra Korzenski.

JVA Moabit. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

So, how are conditions in Berlin’s prisons? Which is the worst?

The Tegel Correctional Centre, opened in 1898, is the oldest prison in Berlin and probably has the worst conditions. One section – Penitentiary I – was actually closed in 2012 after the prisoner accommodation was found to be unconstitutional: cells were too small; five square metres of floor space, with no separate toilet. Prisoners housed there were eventually awarded compensation. The building was demolished in 2018. There are demands to close another section due to conditions that violate human rights.

The JVA Heidering is Berlin’s newest and most modern prison, but it’s not the most popular. It has a poor ratio of social workers to prisoners and it’s out in Brandenburg, which makes it more difficult for relatives to visit. The most popular prison is probably the Plötzensee one. They have a gardening programme which is a hit with inmates. However, it is not easy to get into.

How does it differ for men and women?

I’ve had clients say that being in an open prison was more relaxed than living at home.

In general, women react to prison more frequently with passivity, resignation and depression. Physical altercations among female prisoners or attacks on officials are rare. That’s why they usually have more freedom than male prisoners. If certain prerequisites are met, you can also house children up to the age of three together with their mothers. The Women’s Correctional Centre works together with the youth welfare offices assigned to these cases, who also remain responsible for the child while they are housed in the prison.

There is a stereotype about German prisons that they’re like hotels – big TVs, yoga classes, etc. Is this true?

Prisoners have access to TVs and sports classes, but it’s nothing like a hotel. The cells are small and not even remotely as comfortable. I’ve had clients say that being in an open prison was more relaxed than living at home. They didn’t have to take care of their children after work, the wife was happy to see them on the weekends and they could still go to work. But I guess most people still wouldn’t give up their freedom voluntarily. Although for some homeless people, it might be better. They get a roof over their heads and warm food on the table.

What’s the food like?

I’ve only eaten in the canteen at the Tegel prison. The food there is very good and there is even table service. But for the inmates, I think it’s not so good. At least, my clients aren’t enthusiastic about it. Nevertheless, many of them put on weight…

Cell from the old Moabit prison. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

What do you wear in a prison?

Inmates in Berlin don’t have to wear special clothing like you see in movies. They do have Anstaltskleidung (institutional clothing) which will be provided, but you are allowed to wear your own clothes. Each prison has a specific time and day in which relatives can drop off clothes for the inmates. Some even exchange their dirty laundry and get fresh clothing from their relatives each week.

Is there much illegal activity inside Berlin prisons?

Yes, there is illegal activity in every prison. One of my clients once told me that it is easier to get drugs in the prison than on the streets. Correctional officers try to stop this – but they don’t always succeed.

On your Instagram page, you mentioned a rumour that some lawyer had smuggled in a prisoner’s spouse disguised as a legal intern – do lawyers often go to these kinds of extremes?

Some lawyers do try to smuggle things into prison for their clients, but it’s not common. Lawyers have to go through a security check before entering prison, too. Once a correctional officer opened my water bottle and smelled it to figure out whether it was actually water or some sort of alcohol.

In US drama, you often see prisoners dividing themselves into gangs – does this happen in Germany, too?

Yes, this happens. Groups are formed for different cultural reasons and there are hierarchies based on the types of crime you have committed. Sex offenders, for example, are usually at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Berlin’s Prison System

Unlike the US, where prisons have high- or low-security levels, Germany has open and closed prisons. The latter are high security. In the former, on the other hand, inmates are trusted to complete their sentences with minimal supervision and perimeter security. Often, cells aren’t even locked. Prisoners are usually allowed to take up employment (outside prison). Sometimes – usually after serving part of their sentence – they are even allowed to spend weekends at home.

There are eight prisons in Berlin. Five of them are men’s prisons: the Tegel, Heidering and Moabit Correctional Centres are closed, whilst the Plötzensee Correctional Centre combines closed and open enforcement. The Berlin Open Prison Centre is – you guessed it – open. The only female prison is the Berlin Women’s Correctional Centre, combining closed and open enforcement. For young offenders, the Berlin Juvenile Detention Centre and the Berlin Juvenile Custody Centre also combine open and closed enforcement.

Sandra Korzenski moved to Berlin after studying law at the University of Bielefeld. The criminal defence lawyer worked for two renowned firms in the city before founding her own in 2017. As well as dealing with prisoners through her firm, she provides legal advice through her Instagram page.

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