Post #126  830 words; 4 minutes to read


Canada’s Correctional Investigator recently released yet another annual report drawing attention to some of the terrible conditions in Canada’s prisons, and the seeming indifference, if not outright opposition, of the government and the CSC to doing anything to improve things.

A few years ago, The Marshall Project, a US organization dedicated to improving criminal justice, took a group of US prison managers and policy people to Germany to look at their prison system.  Germany imprisons far fewer people per capita, keeps them in prison for less time, and under much better conditions.  Even defendants who get a “life sentence” for murder in Germany are released after 15 years if staff no longer deem them dangerous. Yet Germany has a lower crime rate and a lower recidivism rate than Canada, let alone the US.

Focus on rehabilitation

The basic difference is that the German system is truly focused on rehabilitation, whereas our system remains primarily focused on punishment. “The role is to protect the rational system of correction — which aims to restrict freedom the least amount necessary — from the retributive impulses that individual victims and society in general might feel.

Gero Meinen, who directs the Berlin Ministry of Justice, explained that his system’s “sole aim” is “to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility upon release.”

Prison conditions

Prisoners live in rooms, not cells, and sleep in proper 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 for their work, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education.  Prisoners are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release.

Cells look more like dorm rooms at a liberal arts college than the steel and concrete boxes most U.S. prisoners call home. The toilets and sinks are white and ceramic, not stainless steel bowls bolted to the wall.  Most prisoners have knives and forks in their cells.  Though prisoners cannot access the Internet, they have telephones in their rooms, and they can call anyone — even the media.  Some of the items freely available to German prisoners but not allowed in Canadian prisons include darts, fruit (limited in Canadian prisons because they can be used to make alcohol), and kitchen knives.

There are also few or no security cameras.  And the maximum time inmates spend in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours. Yet there is little to no violence in German prisons, in communal kitchens where there are knives and other potentially dangerous implements.


We do not transfer juveniles to adult courts,” said Frieder Dünkel, a criminologist at the University of Greifswald in northern Germany.  “It is not possible.”  And there is a debate about extending the age of adulthood for criminality from the current 21 to 24.

Better trained staff

In German, corrections officers are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals and are part of a therapeutic culture between staff and offenders.  They get more training and higher pay.

There is considerable competition to work for prisons. Training programs may have a 10 percent acceptance rate — a figure more often associated with the most challenging university programs.  Candidates have to score over 100 on an IQ test to qualify. Once they’re accepted, training lasts at least two years.

Prisons in Berlin have 33 physicians to care for 4,200 inmates.  That’s a ratio of about 1 doctor for 127 prisoners, vastly higher than in Canada, where a prison with 400 prisoners may have one part-time doctor.

Other differences

Many prisoners are able to go home for short periods to visit family.  Others can have their families including children visit in a small room with a kitchenette and a couch. A social worker (not the prison guards, as is the case in Canada) can approve unsupervised family visits in the prison, held in a cozy room with a kitchenette, a crib, and a couch that folds out into a bed.

Administrators in Germany frequently use terms like “human rights” and “dignity” and Germans appear to view people who commit crimes as medical patients (the word “prognosis” is often used to describe the status of a prisoner). There is little stigma after prisoners finish their sentences — employers in Germany generally do not ask job applicants if they have a criminal record

Lessons for Canada

These measures are associated with a system that is far less expensive than that in Canada, largely because it imprisons fewer people and keeps them there for less time, with fewer of them returning to jail as well.  The problem in Canada of large numbers of sick or frail older prisoners hardly exists.  Yet the country has less crime and less recidivism.  Surely there is an important lesson here for Canadian justice policy, yet one we seem very reluctant to learn.  We seem unable to implement even the least controversial of these measures, let alone all of them.