Visiting a prison in Germany, in a recent telecast, CBS 60 Minutes reported the stark differences between American and German prisons and “stark” barely describes the comparison. Even prisoners serving long sentences for violent crimes have an enormous amount of freedom, compared to inmates in American inmates, and reside in comfortable quarters that are closer in comparison to a retreat spa than to an American penitentiary. Some prisoners, CBS 60 Minutes reported, even possess keys to their own cells; if you can even call them cells.
Some notable questions for the piece were, “how do we explain the contrast between American and German prisons?” and “what can we learn from the German penal system?”
My response would be that there is not much we can learn that can be translated into changes in American penitentiaries because the differences in penal systems are nothing more than a reflection of the differences between German and American society.
Americans like to think that we live in the greatest nation on earth but that is more of a long-held assumption than a reality. This is particularly true if you are Black, Muslim, Mexican or other minority. The same can be said if you are poor, of poor health, or are the victim of a gun related crime. The German government, much like many of the other industrial democratic nations of the world, actually takes care of all of its citizens, rather than a privileged few, and it provides a much safer environment, the threat of terrorism notwithstanding.
Racial tension and prejudice permeates American society. German society is much less diverse and while there are certainly racists among the German people, recent incidents like Ferguson and Baltimore are, arguably, much less likely to happen. The German people, probably, are far more charitable to President Obama and his family than “conservative Americans” who view the President as evil.
I have not been to Germany but I would be surprised to learn that one would find the same long lines that we see at community food banks in cities around the U.S. Similarly, the disturbing failure rates among American public school students, particularly on the part of poor and minority children, are not part of the German socio-cultural experience.
One of the other differences in the two societies is the prevalence of guns in the U.S. There is an old but not very funny joke that, in a country like Germany, citizens have a right to healthcare but will find it difficult to get their hands on a gun. In the U.S., we have a right to purchase a firearm, even an assault weapon, but may well find it difficult to get access to or be able to afford healthcare for our families. The freedom to purchase and carry anything from handguns to assault weapons creates a whole different level of violence on American streets.
It would be prudent for Americans to acknowledge that our over-crowded prisons and the violent nature of our inmates are symptoms of jagged rips in the fabric of the great American democracy. They are evidence of an expanding chasm between rich and poor, healthy and sick, white citizens and people of color. This rift between the haves and the have-nots is a source of the deepening resentment some Americans have for others. It is a division that threatens the very principles of democracy. They threaten our ability to work together and to find solutions that work for common good.
If there was ever any doubt of the divisions between us, the emergence of Donald Trump as a legitimate candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination should settle the matter. Donald Trump’s appeal is his pledge to take drastic action in response to some of the problems we face as a society. As we pointed out in a previous blog post, that so many Americans are willing to embrace the authoritarian nature of such a candidate may pose the biggest threat to American democracy, its principles and traditions in our lifetime.