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The Chicago School students witness benefits of rehabilitation over retribution in Berlin

The Chicago School students visited Germany to learn about the different ways correctional treatment is handled domestically and abroad. Ryan Tobiasz, Psy.D. recounted their journey and experiences as well as the lessons they learned.

Over the course of nine days in July 2018, 11 students across three programs from our Washington, D.C. Campus embarked on an immersive study abroad trip in Berlin, Germany. The trip was held as a component of the course “Correctional Counseling and Rehabilitation in the United States and Germany,” which taught students about the role of correctional counseling and rehabilitation, the differences among correctional treatment in the United States and Germany, as well as how best to treat people as a correctional counselor. While on the trip, Forensic Psychology Department Chair Ryan Tobiasz, Psy.D. documented the group’s travels and activities. The Chicago School is developing more programs similar to this one to give our students the opportunity to broaden their academic and professional horizons.

Our group was all-in from the beginning of our trip, touring multiple correctional facilities, museums, and taking part in cultural excursions! We visited Moabit Prison, which houses male offenders for up to two years, with most awaiting trials and convictions. Unlike in the United States where we have jails as well as prisons (each holding offenders for different amounts of time), Germany calls all facilities prisons.

We toured the transport and screening areas, a cell hall, segregation and observation cells, chatted with inmate workers, and even interviewed a current inmate about his experience within the criminal justice system. At the conclusion of the tour, we spent a considerable amount of time talking with mental health staff about their roles and responsibilities within the facility and learned how vastly different the system is from that in the United States.

The United States only constitutes five percent of the world’s population, however, our prison population makes up 25 percent of all incarcerated people in the world. Another startling fact is that 655 per every 100,000 people are incarcerated in the United States. In Germany, this figure stands at only 75 per every 100,000. Germany also sees a lower number of repeat offenders than in the United States. This is a true testament to the effectiveness of rehabilitation over retribution in the correctional system.

Another establishment we toured is Heidering Prison, a state of the art facility with an open concept that promotes rehabilitation and low recidivism for Berlin. Heidering houses a maximum of 648 male inmates who have up to five years remaining on their sentence. Visitation rooms place a heavy emphasis on family reunification, inmates take part in work programs to learn valuable job skills, and they are even allowed to go home during the day and return at night to slowly reintegrate back into the community. The mental health staff we met with really focus on assessment and treatment, with a high percentage of offenders battling addiction disorders.

The Berlin Hohenschönhausen Memorial is a former Stasi prison that housed thousands of political prisoners who opposed the German Democratic Republic (GDR) between 1946 and 1990. Founded by the East German Ministry of State Security, the prison was sited in a restricted military area that was sealed from the outside world. Prisoners were never told where they were being held and were given the feeling of being at the total mercy of the state authority. The prisoners, sealed off from the outside world and usually kept in strict isolation from their fellow prisoners, were subjected to months of interrogation by trained experts with the sole aim of extracting incriminating statements.

It was extremely thought-provoking to reflect on how the correctional system in the United States today has no reservations about the use of solitary confinement, even for months or years at a time. With this being the current norm for us, after touring several prisons in Germany where the facilities offer support and a sense of normalcy, we found the idea of prisoner isolation difficult to grapple with. In Germany, solitary confinement is rarely used, and never for the amounts of time it is utilized in the United States. Solitary confinement in Germany is generally only used for a few hours at a time rather than months or years.

After hearing about the structure of this prison site and what took place within its walls, we were all overwhelmed with various feelings and emotions. Given the subject matter covered throughout this trip, we have all learned how strong interpersonal relationships, reliance on one another in times of need, a positive attitude, and a sense of humor can make all the difference in working through those difficult feelings.

Another emotionally trying visit for us was Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp used primarily for political prisoners from 1936 to the end of the war in May 1945. Considering the individual prisoner’s knowledge that once they entered the camp freedom was not likely to be obtained, walking through this gate was incredibly emotional for us all. Neither words nor pictures can truly describe what we witnessed, what we heard, or the emotions felt throughout the day.

The final facility the group was able to tour was Justivollzugsanstalt Für Frauen Berlin, a prison for women. Given the very warm reception received and unexpected breakfast in the garden, this facility is unlike any prison we have seen. Based in attachment theory, this “social therapeutic” institution focuses on the establishment of strong positive bonds and relationships with others. Staffed with two psychologists and a wealth of resources, reintegration into the community is the goal for the 21 women who reside here. “Trustees,” or security staff, assist the clients by escorting them in the community—to school, to work, or to just assist in navigating life outside the facility. The power differentials that we observe between clients and staff in correctional facilities in the United States are completely absent here. Unconditional positive regard is the driving force that is present. Our group was thoroughly amazed by what we saw and heard from the staff and clients who shared their personal stories with us.

A constant theme expressed by everyone on our trip was that the psychological treatment of inmates in Germany surpasses what we have to offer those in the United States. From the ability to visit home or go to work, to the fact that German inmates are permitted to wear street clothes, the differences between correctional treatment in Germany and the United States are vast. These differences are even more compelling given the lower recidivism rates and costs associated with the German correctional system. Our trip to Berlin gave us a lot of food for thought on how to improve ourselves as mental health professionals and how to change the way in which we approach corrections. Our university’s commitment to multiculturalism and diversity was evident throughout this global transformational experience and this was a life-changing journey for us all.

Dr. Tobiasz earned a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology in 2007 and an M.A. in Forensic Psychology in 2005 from The Chicago School. He worked as a psychological associate at several maximum security facilities within the Wisconsin Department of Corrections before coming to TCSPP’s Washington, D.C. Campus. Dr. Tobiasz also served as an adjunct faculty member at TCSPP’s Chicago Campus for four years and is now the Forensic Psychology Department Chair at the D.C. Campus.

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