What German Prisons Do Differently We toured German prisons and what we saw was incredible.

Dispatches From Germany Full 2
Vera Project Director Alex Frank (right) talks with German prison staff at Jugendanstalt Hameln prison in Lower Saxony, Germany.

This moment, however small, highlighted a critical difference between German prisons and American ones: the human connection.

We tried explaining the American tragedy of prisons to our German friends: That every aspect of the American prison system is designed to dehumanize—starting with rules forbidding people who work in prisons from getting to know those who are forced to live there; and that interactions like the one between Christiane and the young man are rare.

“We are a prison and people here have made failed decisions. But they are humans.”
Nico, social worker at Jugendanstalt Hameln prison

Every time we spoke of American prison conditions, the German officials, as well as incarcerated people, would pause and look at each other. They were stunned.

“You need to learn from us. Your laws are dangerous!” exclaimed a 22-year-old incarcerated young man in Berlin. “Nobody is born criminal.”

Susanne Gerlach, director general of prison administration for the state of Berlin, said, “It is unforgivable. I don’t think that I would want any responsibility in a system like that.”

We were surprised to hear this from a high-ranking official, but she wasn’t alone. We heard similar responses everywhere we went in Germany—from the officials, to the frontline officers and staff, to the incarcerated young people—all of whom responded to our description of American prisons, and their foundations of punishment and retribution, with horror.

“We are a prison and people here have made failed decisions,” said Nico, a social worker at Jugendanstalt Hameln. “But they are humans.” He said this as young incarcerated men roamed freely behind him going about their daily business. It was incredible.

I thought to myself, this is just what human dignity looks like, sounds like, and feels like. It was real and it was genuine. And it was in a prison, of all places.

Learn more by listening to Vera Research Director Ryan Shanahan discuss the German principle of relational safety (below):

How German Prisons Use Relationship-Building To Foster Safety