Kids in Prison: Germany Has a Different Approach, Better Results

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In Germany, there's a law that dictates how much natural light needs to come into a prisoners room. (Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC)

Whenever Terence leaves his prison cell at New Jersey State Prison, there are guards on each side of him in helmets and bulletproof vests with their batons out. 

“It’s traumatizing,” said Terence. He's been in adult jails and prisons since he was 17 for a murder he committed as a minor. His crime didn't require him to be tried and sentenced as an adult. That decision was made by the prosecutor and a judge.

When he picked up his prison uniform on the first day of his 30-year-sentence, Terence says he had to strip naked and walk uncomfortably close to naked adult inmates. 

“And I’m a sexual abuse victim, so just having to do that was like, anxiety," he said.

I have been talking to male inmates like Terence about what it's like to be a minor in an adult prison. (Advocates and lawyers for the inmates agreed to arrange the interviews on the condition of anonymity.) I visited the maximum security prison where Terence is incarcerated and then went to prisons in Germany, after the Vera Institute of Justice pointed to the country as a system that has better outcomes for its inmates, even though it's less punitive toward minors who commit crimes.

The Racial Disparities

In Part 1 of our series, Kids in Prison, the WNYC Data News team found that almost 90 percent of minors prosecuted as adults in New Jersey are black or Latino kids. That’s 605 black or Latino kids, compared to 76 white kids, in the past five years. 

Not all of the minors who were tried as adults were found guilty and not all went to prison. But WNYC found at least 152 inmates are still serving time in adult prisons for crimes they committed as minors — 93 percent of them are black or Latino. That's just looking at crimes committed in the past five years, and not including offenders who already completed their sentences. 

Children who commit crimes in New Jersey can no longer be sent to adult prisons. A new law that went into effect last spring says that minors now have to be placed in juvenile facilities until they're at least 18. And they can stay there well into their 20s. But the law is not retroactive, so the 17- and 18- and 22-year-old inmates who are currently in adult prisons for crimes they committed as minors have to stay there.

Inside an Adult Prison, as a Minor

One young inmate, Jamal, is doing nine years in an adult prison — a different one from Terence — for two armed robberies and a carjacking he committed when he was 14 years old. No one was hurt.

Jamal was kept in a unit away from adult inmates until he turned 18 last November. But Jamal says he still feels young. “It’s an adult facility and you have adults in here with more serious crimes,” Jamal said.

“People are getting hot water thrown in their faces; people are getting stabbed, jumped. You got predators that’s just looking for weakness to rape somebody,” said Trevor, a former inmate at a third prison. He recently got out after nearly nine years. “This is what you put a 17-year-old around. And then how did you expect me to come out of prison?”

According to Marcy Mistrett, chief executive officer for Campaign For Youth Justice, every state allows minors to be convicted as adults.

"In 23 states, this includes children as young as age 7," Mistrett said. And seven states continue to prosecute every 16- and 17-year-old as an adult.

Other Countries Don't Allow Minors to be Prosecuted as Adults

To find a system that protects minors from entering the adult criminal justice system, you must look to another country. So I visited German prisons, where minors can never be tried as adults. People younger than 21 who commit crimes can be treated as juveniles. Officials there say there is nothing about the age of 18 that makes you mentally or emotionally ready for adult prisons or adult consequences.  

Joerg Jesse is the director general of prisons and probation in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a German state about the size of New Hampshire. Jesse says minors in Germany cannot be prosecuted as adults no matter what crime they commit.

“He’s still a 14- or 15-year-old boy, even if he killed another person. We would never say because he killed another person, we now have to react in a way we would a 30-year-old," Jesse said. "We don’t have that idea.”

About 90 percent of the inmates in Mecklenburg's prison for adolescents, called Neustrelitz, are over age 18. They can stay there until they turn 24. 

Jesse visits U.S. prisons often to consult on prison reform, including reducing solitary confinement. "I think it’s much more punitive," Jesse said of the American prison system. "And [there's] a strange belief that punishment and punitiveness is changing something."

Inside a German Prison for Minors

In Germany, prisons are supposed to mirror the outside world. Officials say that helps prisoners learn how to live a life without crime when they get out. It's a system with short prison sentences, where inmates have access to knives in their kitchens and electric saws at their jobs. And the guards in Germany don’t get batons or pepper spray or bullet-and-shank-proof vests.

Male and female inmates sleep in different rooms, but are otherwise in prison together.

“If they want to hold hands, they can hold hands; if they want to hug, they can hug. Basically, they don’t have sex. I hope,” said Marie-Christin Lehm, who runs the prison. “There should be no time to do that.”

But inmates can kiss. And prisoners can go apartment shopping before they get out. “If you have a job, if you have a flat, that is the best preparation to not come back here,” Lehm said.

There’s a vineyard at Neustrelitz where juvenile inmates make their own wine to give as gifts to their guests.

There are horses, sheep, goats and rabbits. 

Every prisoner has a job that pays minimum wage. And there are coffee pots all over the prison where inmates gather with glass mugs and metal teaspoons. Lehm says young inmates need a lot of coffee — they're not used to working a full day. 

Each room at Neustrelitz has a large window — with bars — that opens. There’s a law that dictates how much natural light has to come into an prisoner’s room. Their walls are covered in pictures of their families and cut-out pages of Playboy magazine. There are rugs and decorative lamps and flowers, and each prisoner has his or her own toilet with a door. 

German prisons are attracting the attention of officials in the United States. The governor of Connecticut recently visited Neustrelitz prison and when he came back he introduced legislation to treat people between the age of 18 and 20 as juveniles. That would mean they would go to juvenile facilities and would not get adult records.

In Germany, about 30 percent of its juveniles and young adults come back to prison within three years. New Jersey tracked recidivism differently, but according to a state report, more than 85 percent of its juveniles are re-arrested or return to court.

German inmate Miland is doing two-and-a-half years in a juvenile prison for more than a dozen robberies and assaults. He was an adult at the time, but a judge decided he didn’t have the mentality to be treated like an adult. Miland says prison is still prison.

“One day of the week, 100 percent I am sad, of course. I want to go to my mother,” Miland said, “My mother’s cooking I want to eat, so if I call with her, she’s crying and I’m sad too.”