German Prisons ‘Astonish’ American Visitors

A delegation of Americans just visited several German prisons this year and came back impressed:

Earlier this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values. How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation? In Germany we saw a potential model: a system that is premised on the protection of human dignity and the idea that the aim of incarceration is to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.

The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.

In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.

The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.

At conferences the question often comes up whether the dedication to 'inviolable' human dignity that starts the German constitution has real meaning. The prison example shows it does, in my opinion. Nevertheless, many English and American lawyers claim that human dignity is not a meaningful legal value. Justice Thomas, a black conservative justice who voted against gay marriage, explained:

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

One American law professor even cautioned readers concerning the 'danger' of human dignity:

The word dignity eludes narrow definition, or for that matter, any generally agreed upon definition. The Court itself has not provided a clear definition of dignity. One scholar, William A. Parent, declares, “[D]ignity is to possess the right not to be arbitrarily and therefore unjustly disparaged as a person.” In another article on “the Jurisprudence of Dignity,” Leslie Meltzer Henry writes that there is no single definition, but that dignity includes various conceptions including institutional status, equality, liberty, individual integrity, and collective virtue. She concludes, “dignity’s conceptions and functions are dynamic and context-driven.”

If dignity is defined so elastically, then conservatives judges might invoke it to strike down not only gun-control laws, but also other progressive legislation. Libertarian groups invoked the “sweet-mystery-of-life” my [sic] language in Casey to argue that the Obamacare healthcare mandate unconstitutionally violated the dignity and autonomy of Americans by forcing them to buy health insurance. In the future, cigarette smokers might argue that anti-smoking bans violate their ability to create an individual identity. And conservative Christian wedding photographers could claim that anti-discrimination laws compelling them to photograph gay weddings violate their dignity and ability to define themselves as conservative Christians. What courts would do when confronted with the clashing dignitary rights of the religious wedding photographer and the gay couple, or the hunter and the victim of gun violence, is anyone’s guess, because dignity is such an abstract concept that its boundaries are difficult to discern.

I find the different attitude toward 'dignity' pretty interesting and have written about it in a few contexts, but I'll spare you the boring details. It's the kind of issue that, to do it justice, requires you to lay down a bunch of ground rules, collect historical examples, and carefully delimit your claims with a bunch of caveats. In other words, to write like a boring academic. If that doesn't deter you, head on over to my academia.edu page. But don't say I didn't warn you. 

One thought on “German Prisons ‘Astonish’ American Visitors

  1. Only recently Andrew wrote

    No matter how irreligious Germany gets, it shares with many Western European countries a common cultural heritage of Christian natural law thinking, especially about human dignity.

    However, the NYT article quoted above doesn’t trace back the German efforts to a common cultural heritage of Christian origin:

    The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity.

    I guess there’s truth in this: The German manifestation of “human dignity” is linked to the experience of “Zivilisationsbruch” (one of those very German words, meaning “a rupture in civilisation”).

    The authors of the NYT article don’t beat the religious drum. I guess they know exactly that nothing good could come out of that (that ‘danger of human dignity’ article mentioned above goes deeper into that).
    Instead they beat the national drum, evoking unity beyond religious and cultural differences:

    This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.

    Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

    I don’t deny that the concept of “human dignity” has its roots in religious heritage.
    But today only fundamentalists believe that the standards of a society must be based on god-given rules. For the rest of us it’s good enough to know that we live in a far better society than the society the nazis wanted to create. That’s the lowest common denominator we have in Germany, and maybe it is more effective than using the religious or the national drum — at least for a period of time.

    I just wonder what happens when the experience of “Zivilisationsbruch” is fading away. Younger generations are less impressed by Nazi history and more impressed by national or religious drums than older generations. The German manifestation of “human dignity” may be history, sooner or later.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s