By Prof.Dr.Ulrich Hemel, Laichingen, Germany


  I: Introduction

The following reflections concerning the interaction between prisoners and society, presented to the 2003 Conference of ICCPPC  (The International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care) in Dublin (Ireland) on September 9th, 2003, certainly are connected to my own life context- such as anybody else’s statement would be. This is the reason for giving you some details for a better understanding of this context:

  After having studied Catholic Theology, Social and Economic Sciences at the Gregorian University in Rome, I did my doctorate and post-doc “Habilitation” studies in Regensburg (Germany), financing my family partly by my own translations agency. This is how I got the chance of frequent services in the County and Provincial Court and in several prisons including Regensburg, Nuremberg and Straubing. Having served as a judicial court translator and as a senior lecturer for Religious Education in University for more than ten years, I switched to working as a management consultant with The Boston Consulting Group, advising several banks and industry firms. At present, I am the CEO of PAUL HARTMANN AG, an industrial company producing a wide range of medical devices and related services around health-care and well-being such as e.g. wound dressings, operation theatre products, plasters, diapers and natural health products. The company is busy in more than 100 countries having own subsidiaries and factories in 36 of them which means a world-wide presence and a total of approximately 10.000 employees. Due to my professional career, I have the chance of knowing many countries by personal experience, always keeping an eye to the social and political reality of each society.

  In my statement, I shall start with a small case study and then reflext about the various dimensions of interaction between prisoners and society.


II. The Cannibal Case

  On March 5th, 2001, two German men who had known each other via the internet, met at a train station having in mind one of the most spectacular horror events of our civilisation: One had asked the other to kill him after having cut off and eaten up his penis.

  I certainly will not go into details, but the following background information will help us to understand the complex relationship between individual, crime and society:

      (1)   There is no indication whatsoever that the victim did not act on a strictly voluntary base- whatever “voluntary” is or is not. Hence, it is difficult for the State prosecutor to plead for “murder”.


   (2)   The victim, a 43 years old engineer living in Berlin named Bernd Brandes, had lost his mother, a medical doctor, at the age of five. She had been a medical doctor feeling guilty pursuant to an alleged medical mistreatment of a patient. Her deadly car accident was supposed to be a suicide in disguise. Her son had felt guilty for her death during a life-time. Unfortunately, he had started to develop a phantasmagoria or a set of inner pictures where he would offer his penis and his life in exchange for his mother’s death.


(3)   The cannibal, a 41 years old computer technician named Armin Meiwes, had collected recipes, films or articles concerning the slaughtering and eating of human beings during many years. He reported that his deed had been the object of his imagination since the age of 12. After his mother had been left by her third husband, he had been living alone with her for many years. When her adolescent son wished to meet a girl, she used to follow him on the back-seat of his car. Generally speaking, the cannibal had been considered as an extremely polite person by all neighbours and colleagues.


(4)   The cannibal had perfect control of himself, as he did not kill another candidate whom he had contacted and who liked to play extreme sexual games including bonding etc. He had set him free after finding out that he did not really wish to be killed.


(5)   After the police had searched his home in December 2001, the cannibal went to a lawyer preparing his defence before court. He then peacefully handed himself over to the police.


(6)   Two of my nephews, 11 years old, could not sleep well during several nights after the press had published the case. This, as well as the press in itself, are just a very tiny example of the interaction between crime, prisoners, and society.

  Ladies and Gentlemen, in order to avoid confusion, it is important to make the clear statement that not all lonely sons of lonely mothers, not all computer technicians, all Germans, all Europeans or all internet users and so on, will develop such or similar patterns of behaviour.

  On the other hand, it is certainly true that people in practically all mass societies feel threatened by the various forms and faces of crime, sometimes more, sometimes less. And a whole industry starting with Edgar Allen Poe and not finishing with Alfred Hitchcock or the Swedish author Henning Mankell, is based upon the detailed description of crime and social reactions connected to crimes and criminals.

  Beyond entertainment by crime, it is helpful to dig a little bit deeper into the nature of the relationship between society and crime. I therefore will continue with an outlook to a more theoretical perspective, i.e. the hypothesis that crime can be defined as a perceived disturbance of public order, always as considered from the standpoint of a particular structure and level of civilisation. This hypothesis is particularly interesting because –strictly speaking- it is independent of any particular ethical or religious standard but at the same time it is empirically and structurally connected to exactly those ethical and/or religious norms as valid in a given social and political context.



III. An outlook to theory: Crime defined as a perceived disturbance of public order

Except for the death penalty, imprisonment is the most severe punishment inflicted on criminal citizens. Independent from the type of society, the way how criminal sentences are being produced, shows a typical interaction pattern between published expectations of a society (e.g. in the form of a “Criminal Code”) and social reactions to what I would like to call a “perceived disturbance of public order”.


(1)   The notion of “perceived disturbance of public order” has quite some implications. Being obviously linked to the historical and political features of public order in each society, it certainly displays the concerns, the fears and ambitions of a given country or nation at each given point in time. Homosexuals in Nazi Germany and many other countries, illegal immigrants and drug dealers in the United States (and, again, in many other countries), people requesting the abolition of amnesty in favour of Mr.Videla’s former military regime in Argentina, Mafia bosses in Italy and many other distinct groups of people have been perceived as a threat to public order and continue to be so. As structures and historical conditions change over place and time, it is inevitable, on the other side, to understand a nation’s concept of public order whenever and wherever we wish to say a word on prisoners and society. In a general term, however, we could state quite clearly: The biggest perceived threat will provoke the strongest repressive reaction. Just think of Apartheid in former South Africa: Anti-Apartheid actions have been punished because they were directed against the system as such, not just against some individuals. For the same reason, spies generally receive the highest menace of criminal punishment, simply because they put into danger the whole public order as such.


(2)   As a matter of fact, human perceptions, societies, and their concept of political order change very much in the course of time. Both governments and the broad mass of people will shape a general feeling of  “what is really important”, of what are the “minimum standards of civilised behaviour” and of where are the broadly accepted “limits of tolerance”. In every society, the limits of tolerance will be exceeded wherever there is a clear social sanction against trespassing the generally accepted notion of public order.


(3)   Every time that such a limit of tolerance is part of a public discussion on what is “right” or “wrong”, the application of existing laws leads to strong public controversies such as e.g. in the case of euthanasia in the Netherlands or in Switzerland or in the case of biotechnological embryo selection in Germany. The definition of crime, and hence the potential relationship between prisoners and society is much more of political than ethical nature, and it is much more a matter of social hopes and fears than a matter of justice and righteousness.


I am not arguing here in favour of ethical relativism concerning crime and prison punishment. On the contrary: by working out the limits of ethical and judicial judgment, it will be easier to understand the nature, the reach and the limits of justice.


American prohibitionism shows that mass phenomena such as drinking alcohol cannot be easily banned by criminal prosecution- just because it really is a mass phenomenon. The fight for and against the freedom o f abortion in many countries shows that in many cases, the creation of a framework of rules and procedures may be more feasible for avoiding social unrest and restoring peace than the relentless execution of maximal positions which bring about a social and political divide because they are being shared just by one major group within a society.

  The example of abortion, of common public schools for Catholic and other citizens, of civil rights for homosexual persons and some more issues of this kind may, by the way, result in an interesting learning curve for the Catholic Church- although such a position on legislation is not at all a strong argument regarding “good” or “bad”, i.e. regarding the ethical dimension as such. The point of the argument is quite different: Criminal legislation is the mirror of the present level of civilisation achieved in a given society.

  Prisoners, as a consequence, can be seen as the representatives of the “bad conscience” of a society: Tell me what kind of prisoners you have in your prisons, and I shall tell you what kind of society you are!

IV. The political face of justice and imprisonment: The case of public safety

  As a matter of fact, justice alone is never capable of shaping social order. Generally speaking, individual acts of physical violence are being less considered as general offence against public order once compared to cases attracting higher public interest and controversy such as e.g. landless peasant movements like in Chiapas (Mexico), antinuclear protests like in Wackersdorf (Germany) or Islamic movements like the Hamas in Palestine.

  On the other hand, the process of civilisation also means a shift from the defence of the integrity of States or Nations towards the protection of the physical integrity of individual persons. The matter of safety therefore is crucial for a better understanding of the relationship between prisoners and society. Generally speaking, the amount of perceived threat will define the level of political oppression, of police control and safety measures but the specific forms and contents of what “safety” means, varies considerably from country to country. It is therefore adequate to fully work out the range of diversity of “levels of safety”and specifically the differences between individual and public safety. Let us hence look at the examples of Sweden, Afghanistan, Colombia and the United States.

  (1) Despite some Polish and other immigrants, Sweden is remarkably homogeneous in ethnic and linguistic composition. With the exception of the murder of former Prime Minister Olof Palme, crime has the appearance of a limited threat to public order. People generally feel safe; justice deals with individuals seen as individuals- despite being considered as “criminal individuals”. Hence, resocialisation and education play a certain role concerning society’s view on prisoners. The degree of repression against criminals allows even for some experimental learning such as the “electronic control” and home arrest instead of prison etc.

  (2) In Afghanistan, the post-war situation makes it very difficult to understand the difference between political, criminal or just ethnical imprisonment. Civil rules are hard to apply in a situation of major political unrest. Justice is hard to obtain, and if justice is being applied, one important question always should be “Whose justice, please?” The clear distinction between the military and the political world is absent. The notion of independent justice may be a target or a dream but certainly not reality.

  (3) Similar challenges can be seen in too many parts of this world such as in Cambodia, Burundi, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo and others. Once public safety is under threat, individual safety- both of free citizens and prisoners, does not get the attention they need and deserve. As a matter of fact, this definitely leads to a lower level of civilised life. The generalised motto of “Take care yourself” or “Debarrassez-vous” in the end simply leads to the danger of social Darwinism, of the primacy of physical violence and ultimately to forms of self-defence and self-justice.

  (4) Different, again, is the context in Colombia, a cosmos of centennial civil war, social tensions, fight against guerrilla troops and drug dealers along with broad social disparity. 75% of all kidnapping world-wide is done in Colombia, and there is virtually not one family without a direct exposure to violence, be it in the family itself or in the neighbourhood. Very often, the roles of criminal offenders and victims are being distributed rather by chance, be it by social class or simply the territory where one is born. And yet: the Colombian society under President Alvaro Uribe has demonstrated the will to get out of the present situation, with a lot of hope and a certain but limited extent of success. Thus, justice is just one tool out of several others, in order to improve the level of civilised co-existence of people in a mass society- but justice never will be more than just one big step. It is, as a matter of fact, much more likely to get hold of prisoners of shaky social future, scarce educational chances and a lack of general life perspectives that to arrest people of the calibre like Pablo Escobar or Jorge Luis Ochoa, the high-ranking drug barons of the country.

  (5) In our search for a typology of approaches to the concern for public order as well as of  public and individual safety, the United States of America constitute another, highly interesting example: Social and ethnic diversity are high, the divide between rich and poor one of the most extreme on earth. Nevertheless, the USA are one of the richest countries in the world, and they do not only have the strongest economy but also the ways and means to build up strong controls in a relatively strong State including the rigid enforcement of law and order. This makes prisons full but it does not solve social problems.

  Things in the U.S. have changed further especially after September 11th, 2001 and the attacks to the World Trade Center in New York. The concern for public safety now politically is being expressed as a relentless “fight against terrorism” including preventive military actions such as in the Iraq in March 2003. Even the most simple flight to the USA nowadays is an adventure in overcoming advanced safety procedures. Nevertheless, we all know: there never will be such a thing as absolute safety, despite all controls. And once again, the level of repressive action and counter-action is getting higher and higher along with the increase of fear and perceived threat to the whole of State and society.

  Whatever our personal conclusion may be, we cannot understand the relationship between prisoners and society without carefully listening to the cause and nature of public safety in a country. And the same is true of economy, if we like it or not.


  V The economical side: A balance of trust and control

  If we look at the economical side of the relationship between prisoners and society, it is wise to start with a consideration not only of the working order of public safety or the lack thereof but also of the balance between general trust und general mistrust.

  I am not talking about the so-called safety business starting by military expenses and not exhausted by jobs around police equipment, around running prisons or private security services in homes and in companies. I am not talking about the huge military and police part of the world economy. It is obvious that we all pay an enormous price for the perceived and real needs of establishing safety and political order in and between States.

  I should rather like to point out something which is even more fundamental: The economic consequences of trust and mistrust., of safety and control. If we could live in a world of perfect trust, of neither keys nor safes, of neither safety controls nor computer system firewalls, we could save at least 20% of the total cost of the world economy. Complete trust saves a lot of effort, and it makes piles of paper for commercial and political agreements simply unnecessary.

  But this is not the real case. On the other hand, if we had to live in a world of complete mistrust, how could I know then that nobody in this audience would shoot me down within the next 30 minutes or so? Both extremes are obviously not real. The conclusion therefore is that we need a kind of balance between trust and control in all life areas, private and public.

  What is quite difficult to realise, however, is the process of finding out the right balance between trust and mistrust. Let me give you an example: Economically speaking, the airport safety control for myself in flying to this conference has been completely useless because I do know that I am not carrying weapons and that I am not a terrorist. The problem, however, is the perception of the other side: How do all others know this in the context or mass air transport?

  The economical point here is one of productivity in the term of transactional cost. Once I feel fairly sure that I can trust another person, I can do better and faster business with him or her. And interesting enough: There has been a study relating the economic strength of a country to the answer given to the simple question “Do you think it is generally possible to trust another person?” The result has been revealing: the countries with the highest score of perceived trust such as Finland, Sweden or Iceland also have been the economically most advanced countries.

  Economically speaking, the result is quite clear. Investments always will be made rather in a safe than in an unsafe environment. Criminal risks for workers and employees will make jobs less attractive. So it will be harder to get highly qualified people for perceived unsafe investments. Political and social unrest or the absence of a well working system of justice in a country are god reasons for many companies not to invest. All companies have to minimise cost, and all have to minimise risk: This is part of any investor’s philosophy. As a consequence, there should be a vital interest of every country, every State and every society to reduce risks for the disturbance of public order- as much as reasonably possible. This necessity certainly includes sanctions against criminal offences and as such usually also the production of prisoners.


VI. Prisoners: Their story and their judicial sentence

  Prisoners therefore are the witness of the eternal struggle of each society for the right balance between safety and trust, between public order and individual necessities, between the respect for victims and the dignity or lack thereof of prisoners.

  Prisoners themselves do have a vital interest in the search for the right balance of cost of trust versus the cost of control in a society. They pursue a kind of public order in the prison itself, and they invent systems of formal and informal sanctions for each real or perceived disturbance of public order in their prison subsystem. They have their own fears and hopes, and their reaction against other in-mate’s crimes follow the general value trends in their societies. This is why sexual abuse of children is on the lowest scale of social respect in prisons, and this is the reason why cases of sexual abuse as reported by Catholic priests in the U.S. and in other countries, have caused so much loss of confidence for the Church.

  Generally speaking, prisoners are well aware of the difference between the political and the ethical dimension of their crime. I am not talking here of the more or less obvious and spectacular cases of prisoners sentenced to prison (or even to death) despite being innocent. I rather refer to the big difference between each individual prisoner’s story and his or her sentence. The story is the personal side including all ethical implications; and all those who ever have worked in a prison do know that personal guilt and the nature of a crime are not at all proportional to common perception; they are rather complex and entangled.

  The difference between story and sentence has a major impact on pastoral care in prisons. The more a person is ready, willing and able to see the prisoner as another person, the more there may well be the chance of a dialogue beyond each other’s role. The personal story around a crime is not always obvious, and it is not always possible to come close to the details- but the mere fact of feeling the attention of a prisoner’s chaplain to the person and not to the crime or the sentence, brings about the pre-condition of a dialogue between human persons, beyond factual circumstances.


  VII. The dialogue of discovery based on respect for the suffering of the other side

  The task of entering into such a dialogue deserves the highest respect- but this certainly is not reflected in public recognition for pastoral care workers. In addition, such a dialogue is based on human and evangelic values such as considering each other person as a brother or sister, as a mirror of God’s love to mankind. It certainly is sometimes hard to understand how at least God would manage to love that and that person- remember the case and person of the cannibal and some other spectacular examples!

  As far as pastoral care in prisons is concerned, the recognition of a prisoner (as well as of prison officials and supervisors), however, is only one part of the challenge. Human beings are enormously different between each other, and we are not always able to step into someone else’s shoes. It seems to me, on the other side, that the essence of Christian pastoral care could well be a journey of discovery aiming at finding out how the other side may feel about what happened.

  As a matter of fact, adverse life events such as accidents, handicaps, the divorce of one’s parents, broken home situations, drugs and crimes, the suicide of a family member and many more such experiences really do change the inner landscape of our souls. Our imagination, our world-view and the view of our inner self are deeply affected by traumatic events. I am sure that each of you has experienced some of such events in your own life. Generally, only good friends or very intimate persons such as spouses or husbands know about our deep, deep vulnerable spots and their life-long traces. As adult persons, we have learned to live with them and understand that others have to carry their life luggage, too.

  In pastoral care, however, we have to find the right timing for really starting the journey of discovery, beginning with a realistic picture of who has been involved and who had and has to suffer from a particular crime. The problem of many prisoners effectively is a lack of empathy. They feel their own sorrow but not the pain of their neighbour. They sometimes simply don’t have access to the feelings of others. Their thoughts and emotions in many cases stick more to their own conditions, their sentence and other judicial proceedings- but they do not have any idea of the suffering connected to the events around their crime.

  The target of a dialogue of discovery therefore should be the gradual learning of how to accept the suffering of the other side- independent of the individual degree of guilt or responsibility. Accepting the suffering of the other side can be the starting point of a real process of peace and reconciliation- and this of course holds true also beyond prison reality! Accepting the suffering of the other side will finally help to understand the importance but also the limitations of each person’s role in those adverse events and circumstances which finally came together to constitute a crime.


  VIII. Death penalty, life sentences and minimum standards

  In the context of these findings, there is no place for death sentences or life-long imprisonment except for cases of psychological disorders which should be treated in a psychiatric institution. The death penalty is a short-cut of reason caused more by a specific social context in need of retaliation than by any other reasonable argument. A death sentence is not a legitimate matter of a State in an advanced civilisation. It is the privilege of God or nature to call for the hour of death, not only because of the danger of sometimes killing innocent people due to occasional judicial errors but also due to the inherent learning and changing abilities of each human person. In a Christian perspective, we never can exclude insight, repent and reconciliation, and it is not the State’s task to cut off such eventual positive developments- even if they may well be rare.

  Life-long imprisonment can be considered from a similar perspective. People should have a chance of getting out of prison at least at some point in time- be it even in their old age. Time changes a lot of things in life, but also in complex societies. A new consideration of each case after 15 years therefore should be a minimum requirement of civilised States in dealing with long-term imprisonment.

In our reflection, we could even ask if prisoners are necessary at all for a society. Certain tribal societies in Africa, America, Asia and Europe certainly have lived without prisons for centuries, and some continue to do so. The history of imprisonment shows highly diversified forms and appearances- from war prisoners to political prisoners, from camps and prison islands to individual or collective prison cells.

  As a matter of fact, however, most countries make ample use of prisons, and the reason is the size and complexity of modern society. We have learned to co-exist despite enormous cultural differences in our ethical life values; and rarely have societies managed to live without prisons, once a certain size and a certain homogeneous set of values have been exceeded.

Even if we have to continue living with the burden of prisons existing in this world, we do have the task of contributing to some progress in civilisation: We should therefore aspire for world-wide recognised minimum standards of treatment such as the ban of torture, the need of a fair trial within reasonable periods of time, and the right of prisoners to learn and to work- in order to mention just some concerns. As a matter of fact, prisons will continue to be the mirror of each society, and nothing is wrong in measuring civilised standards of a society also by the number of persons in prison compared to the total population, by the absence of torture, death penalty and irrevocable life sentences.

  This brings me to a series of conclusions, partly expressed as a vision for the future.


IX. Conclusion I: Recognition of diversity and the challenge of a World Democracy Agency

  As prisoners reflect the hopes and fears of each society, the treatment of prisoners can well be seen as an indicator for the process of civilisation as such. We all have to learn that complex societies need the ability to learn how people can co-exist despite highly divergent value systems, beliefs, religions and life-styles.-

  The pro-active recognition of diversity therefore should be a major concern for each society. In my eyes, South Africa has managed the transition process from Apartheid to democracy especially due to the will and the ability to recognise diversity and to give diversity a voice- starting from the Truth Commission until the National Reconciliation Programmes.

  The recognition of diversity could drive the social evolution of our societies further. This also means a broader level of tolerance for cultural diversity and less need of labelling people in order to use them a scapegoats in a society.

  In the political field, I strongly plead for competition not only in the field of economy but also concerning the efficiency  of democratic institutions. We should therefore institute a World Democracy Agency co-ordinated by the United Nations. This World Democracy Agency should publish a yearly report on Democratic Competitiveness of States and Nations using indicators such as an independent justice, an independent press, free elections, absence of torture and death penalty, freedom of speech, science and religion but also including criteria for efficient systems of taxation, public education and the empirical distribution of wealth.

  Such indicators of democratic life quality will lead to increasing attention to the improvement of democratic structures in many countries. They will motivate shareholders and investors of large and small companies to exert pressure in favour of investments in those countries where the biggest progress in democratic institutions has been made. And the democratic and economical evolution of a country will bring about major changes in the society as such, with a tangible positive impact also on the fate of prisons and prisoners.

  The economic field is closely linked to political and social reality. It is therefore crucial to create favourable context conditions for economic investments. Such conditions definitely include the development of public safety, of reliable democratic processes and a reasonable infrastructure. The crucial key here is the promotion of a culture of trust instead of mistrust, of a culture of honesty instead of corruption, of empowerment instead of repression and control. This may well be a long, long way. Efforts in this field are, however, inevitable for economic success- as the difference in the investment climate between Tanzania and e.g. Botswana, Hungary or South Korea may well show. Only if the cost of trust will be lower than the cost of control, only then economic investments will start to run and to have real impact!

  After these more political and economical considerations, I wish to conclude with a theological reflection.


  X. Conclusion II: The mystery of each human person and the secret of the first stone

Prisoners certainly are part of the society- as well as their victims are. In many cases, they are Christians and part of the Church, too- as may be the case of many of their victims. In every case, they are human persons such as their victims are, too.

  Prisoners may well understand the small or big difference in the ethical evaluation and the judicial sentence of a Court. They may well feel both- to be guilty and to be a victim. They may well accept or fail to accept the notion of a “perceived disturbance of public order” connected to a public sanction such as imprisonment. In every case, however, they stand the standard test for human beings: two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth.

  As human persons, they are part of God’s creation. And beyond all social, psychological, legal or political reflections, we should not forget what Christian faith tells us about individuals: “individuum est ineffabile” (“the individual person does not fit into categories”). Persons are a mystery. They have something of a secret. They are part of eternity and not 100% comprehensible, neither to themselves nor to others.

  This probably is the reason that the Bible ask us to refrain from ultimate moral judgments. If God exists, God is the one who knows the heart of each person- ours, the heart of prisoners, and the heart of their victims. We have to live our lives as good as we can- but at the same time we certainly will discover good reasons to be very modest.

  It is not by chance that there is a very interesting detail in the story of Jesus and the lady who had committed adultery: After his statement that those should throw the first stone who are faultless and free of sin, all of the surrounding slowly went away: “one by one they went away, the eldest first” (John 8.9)

  This is a very noble expression of what human dignity and the ultimate mystery of a human person is about- even in the case of the shocking contemporary story of a child without father who- as an adult man- ended up becoming a cannibal. Despite all necessity of human justice: those of us who are free of sin, should deliberately throw the first stone- but nobody else.

  Thank you very much for your attention.

  Aug.16th/ Sept.1st, 2003




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