How German Prisons Became a Debt Trap | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW

There are approximately 45,000 people in correctional institutions in Germany, and they have been particularly affected by inflation.

Inmates cannot check special offers at the supermarket for the latest bargains on bread, margarine or sunflower oil. They also cannot go to one of the country’s 1,000 food banks, where people living in poverty can get food for free.

All they can do is tick off a list each week of products they would like to buy – in addition to free basic supplies – at prices much higher than outside.

One company supplies almost all of Germany’s 160 prisons and while a bottle of mineral water can cost 19 euro cents (18.4 euro cents) at a discounter, inmates pay 34 cents, or an increase of nearly 80%.

Not on the political agenda

Unsurprisingly, very few people in Germany advocate for the interests of prisoners or warn of the serious consequences of inflation for this virtually forgotten group.

Juliane Nagel, a Left Party member of the Saxony state parliament, is one of those who do.

“The far too low rate of pay for working prisoners must finally be increased,” she told DW. “Around 2,000 of Saxony’s 3,500 prison inmates are in paid employment, receiving no more than €2.15 an hour for this, and yet they are not even included in the pension insurance system of the state.”

Most prisoners work – in fact, they are actually required to do so in 12 of Germany’s 16 states. They work in kitchens, in carpentry workshops or screw components for locksmiths. And they earn between 1 and 3 € per hour.

Inmates must work in 12 of Germany’s 16 states, for a quarter of the minimum wage or less

The value of work

The idea is to teach inmates “the value of regular work for a life without punishment”. It is official for rehabilitation, that is, preparation for life outside of prison, as working prisoners are not legally considered employees.

Many prisoners, on the other hand, see it as a sign that “honest work” isn’t worth it. What little money they earn is spent on personal hygiene products such as deodorant, shampoo and razors, or on phone calls. Or they buy extras like fruit, yogurt and mineral water.

In the past, it was almost impossible to save anything in prison. Today, with inflation, it has become almost hopeless.

The prisoners have now filed a lawsuit demanding adequate remuneration based on the minimum wage and fairer food prices. Even before the war in Ukraine, prices in prisons were higher than in supermarkets, even though institutions are obliged to allow prisoners to buy food at standard market prices.

Rehabilitation or exploitation?

Manuel Matzke spent years checking off lists to order extra food. He’s handed over every penny to somehow make it to the end of the month and knows the pressures on prisoners like no one else.

He served several years in prison in Saxony for financial fraud and is now the federal spokesperson for the Prisoners’ Union.

“We have very harsh exploitation of prisoners when they are at work,” he told DW. “Remuneration for products of everyday life in a correctional institution is beyond good and evil. The hashtag #ichbinarmutsbetroffen [“I am affected by poverty”] could certainly be signed by prisoners in Germany.”

Matzke also knows the counter-arguments: the costs of the correctional system are high; detainees do not have to pay for clothing, basic meals and accommodation; and prisons do not profit from the work of inmates.

But Matzke won’t let that stand: “Prisoners are even worse off than people on welfare, even though they’re always told everything is handed to them in a bowl,” he said. “They want to pay alimony, settle debts and compensate victims. But none of that is feasible for them. We have price increases in prisons due to inflation, but prisoner pay does not hasn’t increased. It’s an injustice that can’t be communicated.”

Manuel Matzke

Former prisoner Manuel Matzke is the spokesperson for the Union of Prisoners association

Pension plan

Many people are already in debt when they enter prison, and when they leave, they have even more. Moreover, prison work does not count as a pension, so the specter of old-age poverty lurks behind the door to the outside world.

Experts believe that the lack of pension rights is one of the main reasons why released inmates re-offend – nearly half of inmates commit a crime again within their first three years of release.

However, a change in the law to include prisoners in the state pension scheme is part of the coalition contract of the current German government. It would be a long-awaited step, Matzke said: “The debts of people who are in jail just get bigger and bigger in jail. And even if you get released early, in most cases you have to do undergoing a medical evaluation in criminal psychology, which still costs you €5,000 to €6,000 Ultimately, prison is a vicious cycle that you cannot escape.

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John A. Bogar