“I Thank God I’m Not in an American Prison” As Young Germans Tell Their Own Incarceration Stories, Comparisons Arise

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“I thank God I’m not in an American prison. I’ve seen your TV shows. I know what happens. If I had to be sent to prison, I’m glad that it’s at least here in Germany.”
Young man incarcerated at a youth correctional facility in Hamburg, Germany

On our visit, we were able to speak directly with Robert, Calvin, and Yusef about their experiences in a German facility, as well as allow space for them to ask us questions.

They wasted no time and minced no words.

“I thank God I’m not in an American prison,” Robert said. “I’ve seen your TV shows. I know what happens. I feel lucky to be able to go to school, get job training, and start over. If I had to be sent to prison, I’m glad that it’s at least here in Germany.”

Calvin nodded.

“Yeah, I agree. I always thought that prison in Germany would be similar to the US, based on what I saw in movies and TV. In real life, it’s actually more like a youth hostel. I’m really thankful for that.”

Yusef jumped in, too, saying that he found support at Hahnöfersand that he didn’t anticipate.

“The staff listen to me with an open ear. Like the others, I’ve seen and heard that US prisons are often very sad and dark, but here I found humane treatment, which I didn’t expect. I have access to counseling for drugs and gambling – in fact, after I leave you all today, I have drug treatment at 4 PM.”

In addition to staff support, the young men held at Hahnöfersand have some liberties and freedoms that are not given to many people incarcerated in American prisons. They’re allowed to decorate their bedrooms, and many of them have brought in posters, photographs, and other mementos from home. They are allowed to work, earn money, go shopping, and can wear their own clothes. They have access to education, substance use and addiction counseling, and even four on-site psychologists and two cultural experts – who are there to aid in communicating with ethnic and religious minorities – available from Monday to Friday.  

It’s this sort of freedom of expression while incarcerated that inspired Vera’s own work to link connection to identity and recognition of human dignity to the American justice system.

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Our work with the state of Connecticut involved changing living conditions for 60-70 young men living at Cheshire Correctional Institution through the first housing unit of Vera’s Restoring Promise Initiative – a unit called T.R.U.E. that implements elements similar to those in Germany. Jordan and Tarence, two young men housed there, have written about the experience in their own words.  

But facility conditions and freedom of expression aren’t the only things that are different about the German juvenile justice system – sentences are often considerably shorter than those for young people in American facilities, too. On average, the length of stay for most young men at Hahnöfersand who are not simply being held pretrial is two years – and most serve just 7-9 months. The ‘juvenile system’ in Germany serves people up until their 25th birthday, and anyone who is arrested before their 25th birthday can be tried and sentenced as a minor at the judge’s discretion.

And yet, for all these practices that make the German juvenile justice system more humane than our own American iteration, it is still imperfect.

Like the United States, there are visible disparities within the German system. An overwhelming majority of the young men held at Hahnöfersand are from the Middle East, Turkey, or Eastern Europe, with many of them speaking exclusively Arabic or Turkish. Despite this clear overrepresentation of Arab young men (people of Arab origin account for 1.6% of the German population), only twenty percent of the staff there have an immigrant background and none of the corrections staff speak Arabic.

Hearing descriptions about the dynamics created by this disproportionate representation of non-German immigrants in juvenile facilities, many in our group were struck by racial and ethnic disparity issues that felt very familiar.

"I’m serving four-and-a-half years. That may not sound like a long time to people familiar with the US system, but for me, it is too much. It is very hard. But I can use this time, make the most of it."
Young man incarcerated at a youth correctional facility in Hamburg, Germany

When it comes to broader justice systems and policies, our group was surprised to learn that, in Germany, anyone who has been incarcerated cannot work in the system upon release – and on their end, Robert, Calvin, and Yusef were shocked to hear that people incarcerated in the United States very often lose their right to vote – with many still unable to vote decades after being released.

As the conversation moved into more personal narratives, two members of our delegation, Daryl Atkinson and Topeka Sam, spoke about their own experiences with the American criminal justice system. Robert, Calvin, and Yusef had many questions for them, including what they learned while in prison (for Topeka) and what advice they might give about how to be successful upon re-entering society (for Daryl).

Topeka talked about the importance of understanding that what happened to you is part of a broader, systemic issue – one that transcends the individual.

“We have a system in the United States that punishes poverty, that punishes blackness, and that punishes people growing up in certain communities. Our system is not rooted in justice, and knowing that, I know also that people should be given alternatives to incarceration – and diverted from the system before they ever enter it.”

In his response, Daryl emphasized the importance of using experiences with the criminal justice system as a motivating force to keep fighting for justice.

“I want to encourage you all to aim high, and work hard, but also to not forget about the people you’ve left behind once you get out,” Daryl said. “I want you to remember them, and come back and fight for them – and for their rights, too.”

In their replies to this advice, the three young men remained resolute about the fact that their lives outside prison would be better upon release than they were beforehand. But they noted that, for them, it was astounding that someone like Darryl could be a lawyer fighting for prison reform, as Germans who have been incarcerated are not allowed to work within the system – or even work as teachers or in other forms of civil service.

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Yusef spoke about the difficulty of serving out his sentence – and about his commitment to making the most of the time spent at Hahnöfersand:

“I’m serving four-and-a-half years. That may not sound like a long time to people familiar with the US system, but for me, it is too much. It is very hard. I left my family on the outside, and I have a young daughter. It hurts me, knowing I’ve lost this time with them that I can’t get back. But I can use this time, make the most of it, and show my family that I’ve changed.”

Topeka replied to Yusef, saying, “I was incarcerated for three years and it felt like forever. I know exactly what you mean, and four years does sound like a long time to me.”

From day-to-day struggles with verdicts and sentences to prison conditions and restrictions upon individual liberty and civic engagement upon re-entry, we found much more in common between the German and American experiences than we expected to find.

We expected to find a revolutionary system – and to the extent that the German system is premised on the protection of human dignity for those incarcerated, it is. But in practice, work remains to be done. Much of it is being done – as the German system works to address its issues and systematically tackle them to improve living conditions and underscore the human dignity of its inhabitants.

As a group of American criminal justice reformers, perhaps that was the exact example we needed to see.