June 6, 2013
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. Continue reading [Germany] Thomas Meyer-Falk: 17 years in prison – A balance sheet