German Criminal Justice

Today I attended my first League of Women’s Voters meeting and the two speakers presented information on how Germany handles juvenile offenders. Dignity is the hallmark of the German system. The speakers said that in Germany:

  • People under 14 can’t be put in jail.
  • People up to age 21 are assigned to the Juvenile Justice system.
  • While on the outside the structures looked like prisons, inside they looked like community college campuses.
  • When in prison, from the start, the goal is to prepare the inmates for successful life outside.
  • Inmates either work on vocational training or a high school diploma.
  • Everyone gets their own room and a key to it. They can open their cell doors to enter, but a guard must let them out.
  • People in prison can decorate their cells with pictures.
  • There’s a system for inmates to shop online using the allowance they receive each month from the government.
  • Guards wear street clothes, not uniforms. They are not armed.
  • Guards study for tw0 years to qualify for their jobs.
  • The interior spaces looked bright and clean.
  • Inmates can use a communal kitchen.
  • They can watch whatever TV shows they like.
  • There’s a farm they can learn to work.
  • Because the prison personnel believe drugs will get in to the jail one way or another, there’s a box for used needles and a way to get clean ones. (That was too progressive for me.)
  • Recidivism is much lower than in the US.
  • When first sent to jail, inmates are examined and assessed to determine how they may be affected by mental illness. If they have psychological problems they’re sent to another facility.
  • As for women’s prisons, offenders with small children can keep them with them until the child reaches age 3.
  • Even in solitary confinement, you have a window to look out and see trees, the sky, nature.

It was a fascinating talk, and some of these practices can be tested in our prisons. If these changes could impart dignity and reduce recidivism, they’re worth a try.

À Nous la Liberté

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Directed by René Clair, À Nous la Liberté (1931) follows the attempt of two convicts to escape. One man succeeds, but his friend is captured. The man who escapes starts a new life selling phonographs on the street. Soon he’s prospered and owns a store. Not much later he owns a huge factory making thousands of phonographs. One memorable scene shows his workers marching in to work, punching in, taking their seats on an assembly line and working like machines, just as the factory owner had when he was in prison. The striking similarity is not accidental.

Later the factory owner’s friend is freed and by chance meets his rich pal. The film is full of such coincidences but they made me smile rather than roll my eyes. At first the prosperous man is leery. Does his old chum want to black mail him?

No. His old friend Emile is far more sincere, more innocent. Despite the soul-killing monotony, Emile wants to continue working at the factory so he can woo a woman he’s infatuated with. As the rich men’s high society friends talk about him behind his back and are stuffy bores, the factory owner opens his life and his wallet to his old pal to help him win this woman’s heart. Then the wheel of fortune turns against this pair of friends.

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The film does use sound, though sparingly. For much of the beginning I thought it was a silent film. Michael Atkinson applauds Clair for experimenting with should when directors like Chaplin where “too timid to.” It’s a fun, clever film that has an uplifting feel to it. I agree with critic Atkinson who describes as “bouncy with melody, soaked in spring light, wistful about the conflicted relationship between serendipity and love.”

Clair was the first to film a scene where all hell breaks loose when workers can’t keep up with the assembly line. His studio and some critics believe that Chaplin plagiarized À Nous la Liberté when he made Modern Times. Clair didn’t get involved and said since he appreciates so much of what Chaplin’s done, if he did borrow from this film, that’s fine. His studio disagreed and took legal action which dragged on for 10 years. They lost.

À Nous la Liberté has a surprising, positive (or perhaps naive) ending. I can see why the film was on a list of “Most Influential Films” I received at Act One. So glad my library had it.

Shakespeare Saved My Life

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I’m reading the absorbing Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by English professor and Shakespeare expert, Laura Bates. Bates grew up in a poor neighborhood with plenty of crime and troubles. After getting her doctorate, she begins teaching in an Indiana prison a few days a week. Her employer, University of Indiana offered courses to prisoners. After awhile she convinces the prison to allow her to teach in prisoners in solitary confinement. Her school’s not on board so she does this for free.

Bates describes the details of the high security section of the prison, all the thick double doors she has to go through and all the perils she must avoid. The heart of the book is her engagement with the convicted murders she works with. Their insights and engagement with the plays are a far cry from what you’d expect from men imprisoned for life. Bates’s book also relates the men’s narratives – how they got where they are. It’s an absorbing read. I’d love to see Steppenwolf or the Chicago Shakespeare Theater dramatize it.