After being imprisoned for almost 17 years nonstop, from the 8th of July 2013 onward I will be held in preventative detention (Sicherungsverwahrung, a form of “security detention” in Germany for convicts who have served full terms, but are still considered to be a risk to “public safety” and therefore detained past the end of their sentence). So I want to use this final period of my prison sentence to write a balance sheet of sorts.
Solitary confinement phase
Though it is still used today, particularly in the German justice system, the notion of continuous solitary confinement (incommunicado detention) was more common in the 70s and 80s. For example Günther Finneisen was in complete isolation in the prison JVA Celle for 15 years straight. Peter Wegener’s detention passed its 18th anniversary in May of 2013, all of which was spent in an isolation wing.
My own imprisonment began with solitary confinement in Stuttgart-Stammheim, then in 1998 for a few months in Straubing (Bavaria). After I defended myself effectively in court against the shift to Straubing, I was held in the prison JVA Bruchsal (Baden-Württemberg) until May 2007. Since May 2007 I have remained in “normal detention” (Normalvollzug), which means that I can meet other prisoners in the yard and visit other prisoners in their cells, and they can visit me in mine.
So what is this solitary confinement? Those held in isolation must spend time alone and cannot meet with other prisoners. Even the guards can only be seen when they bring you to the prison yard or to the shower cell, or hand you meals through the small hatch in the cell door. Depending on the local conditions, there is neither a radio nor a TV for either distraction or some sort of information. Visits from friends and relatives are severely restricted: you can see them behind bulletproof glass (just like in US movies), and guards are always present and listen to every word being said. Incoming and outgoing letters are read and sometimes copied by the prison administration, in order to be filed. The address of the recipient and sender are noted in lists.
Before and after visits, prisoners get completely searched, including being stripped naked (even though the prisoner cannot have, and is not allowed, any physical contact with visitors). This also happens before and after being let out into the tiny yard which is topped with barbed wire.
Those imprisoned in such isolation are no longer human beings, but potential sources of danger. More like a piece of meat that gets transported here and there under complete surveillance and control.
The isolation cells are no luxury suites either: everything is sterile, screwed on tightly and mostly made out of metal. Having private clothing is forbidden, of course, and other personal belongings (like pens, paper, photographs) are reduced to an absolute minimum.
This is how you live not only for days and weeks, but for years or whole decades. The aforementioned case of Günther F. was described as “scandalous” by a professor (Dr. Feest) in his commentary about the prison act.
The so-called deprivation—the prohibition of any stimuli, and of course, preventing contact with other people—has unavoidable physical and psychological impairing effects.
Some prisoners held in solitary confinement have had total psychological breakdowns, and there are suicide attempts, simply because they cannot stand the loneliness, the complete absence of anyone else. These people can only bare these conditions with psychotropic drugs. Others are more resilient, more resistant to the psychological burden, but do not remain unaffected by these harmful effects.
Despite the fact that I have been in “normal detention” for six years now—which means that the cell is open for two and a half hours every weekday and five and half every weekend, so that I can meet other prisoners—I still prefer to limit my interactions to one or two prisoners at a time in specific circumstances, since situations with more people around me present too many stimuli for me to handle. Those who must live alone too much for so long, learn to accommodate themselves to such circumstances, in such a way that certain mechanisms also assume an independent reality.
Thus, a reduced capacity to absorb what someone is saying, or the ability to concentrate on face-to-face conversations only, are part of those problems.
As a rule, we can only read or hear about people who are held in solitary confinement when they are able to actively inform others about themselves (via letters, since there are no other possibilities). The sad thing is that there are so many people in isolation, who are unheard and unseen simply because they do not have the ability or the will to spread information about their own situation and draw attention to their lot.
Abu Ghraib, the US Army’s torture facility (near Baghdad), which is largely forgotten today, became a public scandal because of photographs. In the age of the Internet, images are becoming more and more effective—and of places where no pictures exist, there is little to no reporting. This is the security that the justice authorities have, that their acts will not appear in the newspaper, will not ever go public.
Execution of sentence
At first glance, it might appear progressive if prisoners and people in Sicherungsverwahrung are permitted to buy flat screens and the PlayStation 2. However, for both of these they had to struggle in the courts. Additionally it might not be helpful after their imprisonment to have reached the championship level in various PlayStation games, while at the same time never having seen a computer, nor being able to use one in a proficient way. Because computers (not to mention internet access) are forbidden inside prisons; it follows that after release none of the prisoners can use a computer in a proper way.
Other than that there is little uplifting to report, apart from these technical innovations. In fact the security screw has been tightened more and more over the years. Year in and year out there are new restrictions: first all glass bottles are forbidden, then adhesive tape, wet glue, broomsticks, and so on. Also the ability to move within one prison building has considerably shrunk in many places.
Whereas a few years ago inmates could visit one another in the entire prison building in Bruchsal, Mannheim and other facilities, today they are normally only permitted to stay in their own section, and will be savagely punished if they attempt to visit somebody in another prison wing.
Wherever you look: cameras! So here is a similarity to living conditions in freedom: not a single step outside of the cell that wouldn’t be observed and controlled.
Groups of “Russian-Germans”/repatriates from CIS states (former Soviet Republics) are under particular “control” inside the prisons. Even when it seems that there is little solidarity between and among the prisoners, those with relations to the former Soviet states show solidarity amongst themselves, partly separate themselves from others, do not co-operate with institutions, and give aid to each other (for example with tobacco and coffee). This course of action and the formation of a “subculture” create such a thorn in the side of judiciary, that it tries to break the solidarity of the groups through strict measures of security, surveillance and control. Even for those who do not join this “subculture” but are, according to their birth certificate, born in one of the former CIS states, security measures are imposed automatically and they are then called on to demonstrate, above all to the correctional establishment, that they have distanced themselves from those prisoners who associate themselves with it.
Over the years quite a few told me that during their childhood in the Soviet Union they were described as “fucking Nazi Germans,” only to be called “fucking Russians” and treated as such in the prisons after their emigration to Germany.
Within this balance sheet, one of the experiences that stand out as the most depressing is a death in prison. Now and again I have reported about the death of prisoners. In particular, Willi should be mentioned here. He was an HIV-positive fellow prisoner, whom the judiciary left to die in prison—despite all of his desperate attempts to spend his foreseeably short lifespan in freedom until his death.
His death might have been symptomatic for the development of the (German) penal procedure: relentless hardness, to the end.
A balance would be incomplete without mentioning the role and power of the (psychiatric) reviewers.
Generally speaking, whoever wants to be released “on probation” before finishing their sentence will be examined, often through psychologists of the institution, but in many cases also through external reviewers.
For a court order in which release is decided, it is usually the reviewer which must state whether or not, “with regard to the convict, danger of his/her hazardousness, which became apparent through the committed crime, no longer persists” (see section 454 paragraph 2 of the penal procedure code).
In practice then these experts are deciding about freedom or (continued) imprisonment, since if the reviewer’s opinion is positive, then concerned persons will be released and otherwise they will be kept under lock and key.
In May 2013 the political magazine “Frontal 21” of the second channel of the state broadcaster ZDF reported about checkups in the care sector. The healthcare and nursing insurance providers order the MDK (medical service of the health insurance funds) to examine people who are in need of care in order to find out if a level of long-term care (1, 2 or 3) will be granted and, if yes, which one. In tens of thousands of cases the assessments are wrong (the ZDF documented the work of an independent advisor, and she alone debunked several thousands of assessments as false). People who are in visible need of care will be denied services, despite the fact that in the majority of cases the necessity of care is obvious.
So (and this is the point of this little digression), if there is already such a high level of assessments which are simply wrong in a sector that is primarily there for making judgments concerning physical defects and limitations, why should it work better in the area of (forensic) psychiatry? In a sector where the criteria are even blurrier and even more dependent of the expert’s worldview!
Particularly since the psychiatric reviewers make the final decision about release from prison, they don’t tend towards any overwhelming optimism in their assessments; no one wants to appear at the next day in Bild-Zeitung (most popular yellow Press in Germany) under the headline: “THIS reviewer set the LUNATIC free!” if the assessment should turn out wrong.
Unlike the situation of care recipients there is neither a competent lobby nor independent authorities for the imprisoned that might reexamine the reports. In practice the courts take the reports of reviewers word for word, and issue their decisions without any further critical investigation (however, there are cases where the exact opposite occurs, such as a current one in the JVA Bruchsal, where a totally positive report for the inmate X. was rewritten by the judge in charge of the case until it was actually possible that this prisoner, convicted of a narcotic offense, be denied release from prison). So it is strung together from one bad report to the next, particularly for prisoners with long sentences.
In my particular case, precisely due to the imminent Sicherungsverwahrung (and in all such cases), for me to be released from prison a reviewer would have to conclude that a possibility of reoffending is practically excluded; an assessment which—even for people who have never had problems with the penal law before—is hard to come to, since it tries to predict that I will not do something. Thus the courts expect the reviewers to make a prediction that will reach into the coming years.
But how can a psychiatrist, genuinely and seriously, be able to predict what someone will be doing or not doing in a month, in a year, or in two years?
This is one of the reasons I decided to not speak to psychologists or psychiatrists.
Already in the 60s there were studies which gave proof of how the “dangerousness” of prisoners is grossly overrated—for whatever reasons each time. There is a dissertation by Dr. Michael Alex from 2010 (“Ex post facto preventative detention: a constitutional and criminal-political debacle”) in which he proved that, out of 77 ex-prisoners classified as extremely “dangerous” and linked to the highest probability of reoffending, 50 have never had troubles with the law again. Out of the 27 who committed offenses again, 10 have been sentenced to fines, and 5 have received suspended sentences. Only 12 of the ex-prisoners received non-suspended penalties, usually for theft, fraud or narcotic offenses. In three cases the measure of preventative detention was imposed. Consequently, in merely three out of 77 cases did the predicted “extreme danger” become real: less than 4% of the cases, despite the fact that all of the 77 ex-prisoners were previously classified as extremely dangerous by the courts and experts, and were supposed to receive Sicherungsverwahrung.
Certainly this reviewer-problematic is not about to change anytime soon; thus the perspective from the captives’ point of view is more than pessimistic.
Preventative detention (after completion of sentence)
For me it was essentially relieving to know that I was sentenced to Sicherungsverwahrung already. In this way the judiciary was not able to put pressure on me, at any point, by threatening to endorse the order for preventative detention, or to suddenly apply for it against me (which is legally still possible).
Today it is mostly not known (anymore) that it was mainly representatives from communist and social democratic parties who, during the Weimar Republic, attempted to hinder the introduction of Sicherungsverwahrung. Already in 1928 none other than Kurt Tucholsky—whose sentence “Soldiers are murderers” became the battle cry for millions—positioned himself clearly against this type of preventative detention (“Down with the Sicherungsverwahrung” in: Die Weltbühne 1928, pp.838-840). It was the Nazis who introduced the preventative detention on November 24, 1933.
During the period after 1949 it were representatives of the ruthless National Socialist justice, such as Eduard Dreher (who, being the head prosecutor of Innsbruck’s special court, enforced his share of death penalties in 1943), who were allowed to make a career in the West German justice system, and were significantly responsible for the commentary on, and thus also the implementation of, the Sicherungsverwahrung paragraphs.
Already in 1952 the German Democratic Republic’s justice had decided that the Sicherungsverwahrung is “fascist in its content”—by ruling of their highest court from 23 December 1952—and therefore was to be forbidden in East German territory.
In our days, compared to the rest of penitentiary, the conditions of detention in Sicherungsverwahrung are surely a little more pleasant and relaxed (though obviously nowhere near the conditions depicted in articles about Freiburg prison, namely by the bourgeois Press, which only licks the boots of ministers, politicians, and prison officials with headlines such as “Hotel behind bars”). However that may be, even a cage painted in gold always remains a cage!
My own future prospects
The prospects for my future might appear far from enjoyable, since I have to expect that I will be spending the next decade in preventative detention. However, I am in the extremely fortunate position to know people, friends and comrades, who are accompanying me, writing and visiting me, as well as actively supporting me.
I would like to mention also the Berlin association Free Subscriptions for Prisoners, which arranges regular subscriptions to newspapers and magazines for hundreds of prisoners, including me.
Thus I’m in good cheer that I will get through the forthcoming period relatively unscathed as someone “preventively detained” instead of as a “prison inmate.”
At the very least, I will be better than those who haven’t got the luck to count on such wide support; those who remain locked up in their cells forgotten by the world, and live a life which has little to do with dignity and nothing with freedom.
Red anarchist skinhead Thomas Meyer-Falk still refuses to collaborate with any psychiatric reviewers. The comrade was arrested for a bank robbery, and has been incarcerated since 1996. Not only was he not released but, on top of that, he was recently transferred to another prison. From 1998 he was in Bruchsal; since early July 2013 he has been held “preventively for security reasons” in the notorious hellhole of Freiburg:
Thomas Meyer-Falk, c/o JVA (Sicherungsverwahrungs-Abteilung), Hermann-Herder-Str. 8, D-79104 Freiburg, Deutschland/Germany
Financial assistance through the detention centre’s bank account
Empfänger (Recipient): Zentrale Zahlstelle Justizvollzug
Konto (Account): 4552107
BLZ: 600 501 01 (BW-Bank)
Verwendungszweck (Purpose): “Meyer-Falk, Thomas, 15.5.1971, SG1-AK10”
Even for the slightest deposit (e.g. per month by standing order), it is important to indicate the intended purpose with the exact data given above in quotations, so that the money is in fact made available to Thomas.