© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Up To Date

What Kansas And Missouri Can Learn From Germany About Keeping People Out Of Prison

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Axel Briemle is an internationally-recognized expert in prison rehabilitation management.

Recent news about jails and prisons in Kansas and Missouri has highlighted horrible conditions for inmates, serious staff shortages and turnover, and lack of programs to ensure offenders reintegrate successfully into society.

For people seeking solutions, the German approach offers numerous strategies that have dramatically lowered that country’s incarceration rates. It’s become a model for other countries to study.

“If we are successful in our treatment programs, it means we can reach the prisoner and he is prepared for the day after the release,” said Axel Briemle, an expert who spent years in administration in Berlin’s largest prison. “Everybody who does not return is a success story.”

Germany’s corrections system costs less per capita than America’s but gets better outcomes. It provides extensive training and decent pay for guards, dignified jail facilities, and a focus on rehabilitation and vocational opportunity so inmates have a new lease on life.

Briemle was a keynote speaker at an Oct. 7 symposium in Overland Park hosted by Reaching Out from Within, a rehabilitation organization.

Briemle shared insights and recommendations with law enforcement, wardens, other corrections officials and business leaders at the symposium. He also spoke with KCUR’s Up to Date.

He told KCUR that Berlin’s incarceration rate is about 100 inmates for every 100,000 people, compared to about 650 inmates per 100,000 population in the U.S. Briemle said he senses a real desire among American corrections officials for reform.

“There is already something going on and their minds are open for something new, to change something in the system,” he said.

Key elements to Germany’s approach

Briemle shared insights and recommendations about the German system with law enforcement, wardens, other corrections officials and business leaders at the symposium. 

Avoiding prison altogether

Germany emphasizes probation, diversion, fines and community service, especially for young people ages 14 to 21 and for non-violent offenders. As a result, few young adults wind up incarcerated.

Prison can end up being a “criminal school,” Briemle told KCUR, so keeping first-time offenders out of these facilities is worthwhile, he said.

Making corrections a career

While jails in Jackson County and Kansas deal with the chronic turnover of guards, Briemle said working at a prison can be a good job in Germany. Guards get two years of training in everything from behavior management to security and their pay is on par with that for police.

Providing decent buildings

Briemle said German prisons aren’t designed to be overly comfortable, but they have trees, pleasant outdoor spaces, and aren’t sterile, depressing and noisy, as so many American prisons can be. Inmates have TVs, get fresh air and exercise, and do sports.

“If we have a good environment, an environment where they can change their minds, where they can learn something, then it’s positive,” he said.

Emphasizing re-entry

German prisons provide lots of social services, plus vocational training in subjects such as car mechanics and culinary arts that equip inmates for jobs once they leave. They also connect inmates to employers such as restaurants and hotels.

“So be aware, if you go to Berlin, to a good restaurant, the cook might be a prisoner,” Briemle said.

One key element to successful rehabilitation is the willingness of Germany’s employers to hire offenders. Briemle said he told Chamber representatives in the Kansas City area that prisoners must have someone willing to give them a second chance.

“You have to have the right employer,” he said. “Society has this responsibility.”

Axel Briemle is an internationally-recognized expert in prison rehabilitation management, who spent years in administration at Berlin’s largest prison. He spoke with KCUR 89.3 on a recent edition of Up To Date.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley