Students behind bars: German jails let prisoners study for degrees

  • Living
  • Saturday, 10 Jun 2023

Students studying remotely from a prison in Bavaria, a learning process that comes with advantages and disadvantages. Photos: dpa

Students are not always known for getting up early but Stefan, Jackie and Jan are up at 6 am – courtesy of men in uniforms, and a blaring loudspeaker.

These are not their real names. All are prisoners serving time at a correctional facility in Bavaria. All are also studying for degrees at a distance learning institution.

They divide their time between jobs at the jail in the morning, such as assembling toys or helping out at the locksmith’s shop, and lectures later in the day.

They call it the lecture hall, but the place where they study used to be a cell. It is now a room equipped with eight computers. The students head there to scour documents, write essays and listen to online lectures.

Stefan is studying business informatics and his fellow students are both doing degrees in economics. The shelves are lined with books on statistics, and classics such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations and Immanuel Kant’s works on philosophy.

All are studying through Germany’s only state distance-learning university in Hagen.

“I’m happy to be doing something meaningful here,” Stefan says.

The students may move freely between the detention room, lecture hall and communal kitchen in their hallway area up until 8.30 pm.

There’s a sign on the study area marked “Student Station”. The mood is relaxed, with plenty of light and bright brick walls, not looking particularly different to study spaces on the outside.

The room also boasts a “Wall of Fame” that features other prisoners who have graduated, to serve as inspiration. A sign nearby says, “Everyone said it couldn’t be done. So one guy came along and just did it.”

What makes it all different to a regular university though, is that there are bars wherever you look. You cannot carry a key beyond this area.

When it comes to their daily routine, too, life is different for Stefan, Jan and Jackie. They are only allowed to spend one hour in the yard per day. They may see their family and friends for just two hours a month.

That does leave them with plenty of time to study. What they share with fellow students living on the outside is that all read, study and take exams. But separated by thick walls and coils of barbed wire, they have barely any contact with their peers.

Even virtually, they are not able to exchange much information, with the authorities monitoring their email exchanges. The students do not have free access to the web. The computers they use only have a few programmes on them and they can’t just join a chat online.

“If I don’t understand something, I can’t just ask some of the other students,” Stefan says.

“Studying outside is obviously nicer, but I’m glad I can study in here,” Jackie says.

Stefan, 55, used to work in a bank, before being convicted of fraud.

Jan, 32, who was self-employed and working in the events industry, was also charged with fraud.

Jackie, 41, is meanwhile serving time for trafficking drugs.

But there are people who see that the convicts are capable of doing more, beyond serving out their sentences, such as Arnd Bartel, an educator who supports them in the process of enrolment, lecture schedules and exams, along with his colleague.

A trained teacher wearing jeans, a shirt and a sleeveless jacket, he doesn’t look like someone who works with the prison.

Arnd Bartel, an educator who supports prisoners studying while serving their sentences, as part of a larger process of reintegration.Arnd Bartel, an educator who supports prisoners studying while serving their sentences, as part of a larger process of reintegration.

“As an educator, I’m happy when I discover prisoners in whom I see potential,” he says.

Bartel recalls a long discussion with one student, for example, about the concept of guilt according to Hannah Arendt, a German-born US political scientist and philosopher known for her work on Jewish rights and totalitarianism.

The educator’s work involves mentoring drug dealers, sex offenders and violent criminals.

You can tell how much he cares about his students in almost every sentence, as he uses phrases like “likeable young man”, “a really great guy”, “highly intelligent”, “charming” and “cute” about his previous proteges.

It is partly thanks to Bartel’s commitment that the Wurzburg correctional facility is the state’s only university correctional facility.

Students doing bachelors and masters degrees in the prison, and stars by their names, in the Wall of Fame at the jail in Wurzburg. Students doing bachelors and masters degrees in the prison, and stars by their names, in the Wall of Fame at the jail in Wurzburg.

If an inmate from another Bavarian prison wants to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree, they first have to transfer to Wurzburg. This is a fairly centralised approach but in Bartel’s view, it simplifies the supervision process.

There’s a close relationship between the students and educators involved in the scheme – partly as it is relatively compact, with 34 prisoners starting degrees here since 2011. Five have graduated.

There are also only five students pursuing degrees at present.

This close degree of supervision is something many German students can only dream of.

Although students at university usually enjoy an enormous degree of freedom, studying from prison also comes with some advantages.

“Here, everything is taken care of, all in one,” says Stefan. He does not have to make time to go shopping, do his laundry, go across town to pick up a book or find an apartment.

Stefan, Jackie and Jan also receive money for their studies and gain entitlements to unemployment benefits.

“No other students in our country manage to do that,” says Zersch, the contact person for student detainees at the distance learning university in Hagen. The money helps the students to pay their tuition fees, among other things.

Some might be outraged at the idea of people committing crimes and then getting money to go to university, but it is all part of the larger goal of reintegrating the convicts into society in the longer term.

Once he is released, Stefan for example, won’t be able to get a job at a bank. He has thus turned his interests towards computer science.

“Education and training as well as the work of the prisoners are decisive factors for successful resocialisation,” says the Bavaria’s Justice Ministry.

Bartel describes another offender who studied philosophy in prison, which gave him a different perspective on the world and enabled him to escape his previous focus on money. He now works in the social sector.

“Another came in in a mentally desolate state and has stabilised after he had some mental stimulation studying maths,” Bartel says.

When it comes to choosing a major, student offenders are almost as diverse as their peers on the outside – not all want to go to law school to get out of jail sooner.

Theoretically, the prisoners may study anything they want, including computer science. The Hagen educational institute notes that this is not something all correctional facilities allow, out of concern that the students might learn how to hack their IT systems.

Stefan, Jan and Jackie are grateful to be able to study during their time in prison. They say that other prisoners aren’t envious of them. Also, their fellow students on the outside do not judge them despite the fact that some aspects of student life are easier on the inside.

“No one would want to trade places with us,” says Jackie. – dpa/Vanessa Koneke

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