As of March 2019, half of the prison population in Berlin, Germany was comprised of people from foreign lands, most of whom speak no German whatsoever. The language barrier has introduced unexpected problems among the law enforcement establishment there.
The number of prisoners who aren’t German citizens has been rising steadily in recent years. “In March 2013, the judiciary counted 1133 prisoners without German citizenship. On March 31, 2018, there were 1327 foreign prisoners,” reported the German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost (“Berlin’s Morning Mail”).
Over the same five-year period, the total number of prisoners in Germany declined. The proportion of foreign prisoners jumped from 35 percent in March 2013 to slightly less than 50 percent in March 2018.
A 2005 law permitted the free movement of citizens in the European Union (EU), allowing them to settle in other EU member states. Foreign nationals from Turkey, Poland, Rumania, Lebanon, and Bulgaria top the list of new arrivals in Europe.
Communications between German prison staff and their inmates about the most mundane and simple things have become extremely difficult due to the large number of non-German speakers within prison walls. The German Justice Department is trying out always-available video translation services to avoid scenarios where inmates translate for the benefit of German-speaking prison workers.
“People often cannot even tell us if their abdominal pain is due to a co-prisoner beating them up,” said Thomas Goiny, a Berlin prison administrator.
Conflicts between ethnic groups are increasing. In early 2019, a “mutiny” of prisoners in Heidering pitted Russians versus Chechens.
The proportion of foreign prisoners in Germany is highest in Hamburg (58 percent) and Berlin (47 percent). The 187 prisoners in Thuringia constitute 12 percent of those incarcerated. In Bavaria, foreigners make up 42.3 percent of the prison population, up from 30.5 percent in 2012.
Horst Hund from Mainz chairs the Prison Committee of the Länder. He attributed the rise in foreign prisoners in his country to their leader, Angela Merkel:
“At least for Rhineland-Palatinate, the trend has intensified with the year 2015. The assumption is obvious that the wave of immigration has something to do with it.”
Hund cited Bavaria as a good example of this new EU phenomenon: in 2015, the first year of what is now being called the refugee crisis, some 800 smugglers were taken into custody. “In my view, nobody was prepared for such a development,” observed the prison expert.
Prisoners who cannot speak German are unable to follow orders given in German by their guards. Prison supervisors, themselves migrants, have been serving as interpreters who can “better assess cultural peculiarities from their own experience.”
A judge who perceives that a foreign defendant is at risk of returning to their country of origin will often order detention to prevent prisoner flight. Likewise, groups of traveling offenders without any permanent residence are almost sure to earn a prison sentence.
In Europe overall, with about 800 million residents, migrants make up 21 percent of all prisoners. That’s slightly more than one out of five inmates.
Even more, telling is the fact that 32.4 percent of all foreign detainees in Europe come from Europe. Simple math reveals that the rest – 67.6 percent (about two-thirds) – hail from non-EU nations.
With their prisons operating a full capacity – or more – several German states have indicated that they will build more facilities to expand their capacity in order to meet the demands of the criminal justice system.
Language lessons are also on the German prison system’s To-Do list. Dieter Lauinger, Chairman of the Conference of Ministers of Justice, said.
“The need for language courses and interpreting services is rising, and also the competence in dealing with other cultures is required.”
Problems related to the 28.5 percent of foreign prisoners in Germany are eclipsed by Switzerland which leads the EU in the number of non-native detainees with a whopping 74.3 percent:
Overcrowded prisons in Germany have created a cry for reform. Staff shortages resulted in a staggering 500,000 hours of overtime in 2018 alone. Many prison facilities have been termed dilapidated – outworn and outdated.
German authorities have also reported a rise in inmate attacks on prison staff, with 550 such “special occurrences” in 2017. In North Rhine-Westphalia, since 2016, the number of assaults on prison staff has more than doubled.
“The numbers are a reflection of our society. Insults, threats, and attacks are part of everyday life,” observed Peter Brock, chairman of the German “Prison Staff Union” BSBD (Bund der Strafvollzugsbediensteten Deutschlands).