There is an alternative

Thoughts about criminal justice reform often suffer from TINAism: believing that “there is no alternative.” We think: “This must be the way everyone always has and always will run the criminal justice system.” We need to break this habit of thought if we want restore the rehabilitative mission of prisons. Fortunately, The Marshall Project is running a great series on one such alternative: the German prison system.

Bernie Warner, the corrections secretary of Washington, noticed the faint smell of smoke—all the prisoners can smoke here, unlike their counterparts in the U.S. Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. They have privacy—correctional officers knock before entering. Prisoners wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid more for their work, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education. (Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release.)

There are different expectations for their corrections officers—who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals to be part of a “therapeutic culture” between staff and offenders—and they consequently receive more training and higher pay. There is little to no violence—including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other potentially dangerous implements. And the maximum time inmates spend in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.

Check out the most recent episode of the series on Germany’s prisons here.