A surge in foreign prison inmates in Germany has led to overcrowded prisons and a shortage of staff. Prisons in Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia are currently at 100% capacity. Pictured: Remscheid Prison in Remscheid, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. (Image source: Coltdragoon/Wikimedia Commons)
The proportion of foreign-born inmates in German prisons is now at a record high, according to a new survey of the justice ministries in Germany's 16 federal states. In Berlin and Hamburg, for example, more than 50% of inmates are now from abroad, according to the report, which also revealed a spike in the number of Islamists in the German prison system.
The data, compiled by the newspaper Rheinische Post, shows that the surge of foreign-born inmates began in 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed into Germany more than a million mostly unvetted migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
All of Germany's federal states reported a "very strong increase" of foreign and stateless prisoners in the last three to five years, according to the paper, although a definitive nationwide total is difficult to calculate because of differences in the way federal states compile statistics.
Since 2016, for example, in the western federal states the proportion of foreign inmates increased to 61% from 55% in Hamburg; to 51% from 43% in Berlin; to 48% from 44% in Baden-Württemberg; to 41% from 35% in Bremen; to 36% from 33% in North Rhine-Westphalia; to 34% from 28% in Schleswig-Holstein; to 33% from 29% in Lower Saxony; to 30% from 26% in Rhineland-Palatinate; to 27% from 24% in Saarland. In Hesse, the proportion increased to 44.6%, up slightly from 44.1% three years ago. In Bavaria, the proportion rose to 45% from 31% since 2012.
The number of foreign inmates in the eastern federal states is also on the rise. In Saxony, the number of foreign prisoners has more than doubled since 2016. Most foreign inmates there are from Poland, Tunisia, Libya, the Czech Republic and Georgia. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania now has 160 foreign inmates from 66 different countries.
German authorities are also reporting an increase in the number of Muslims in German prisons. The proportion of Muslims in German prisons is now significantly higher than their share of the total population.
With the recent mass influx of migrants, the Muslim population of Germany now numbers around six million, or 7% of Germany's overall population of 82 million. By contrast, roughly 20% of the 65,000 inmates in the German prison system are Muslim, according to data collected from regional justice ministries.
Muslim comprise 29% of the inmates in Bremen; 28% in Hamburg; 27% in Hesse (although in some prisons there, 40% of all inmates attend Friday prayers); 26% in Baden-Württemberg; 21% in North Rhine-Westphalia; 20% in Berlin; and 18% in Bavaria.
At least 300 hardcore Islamists are serving time in the German prison system, according to data from regional justice ministries. Another 350 Islamists have outstanding arrest warrants. Most of the Islamist inmates are in Hesse, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Berlin. Many are being housed in separate facilities, but there are concerns that those who are not may radicalize other inmates.
In Hesse, for example, the number of Islamists has more than tripled since 2013, while in Baden-Württemberg, the number of Islamist inmates has more than doubled since 2016. "The number of prisoners who have become conspicuous because of their Islamist sentiment has risen sharply in the past two years," said Guido Wolf, the Minister of Justice for Baden-Württemberg. "This presents new challenges for our prison officials, who are already exposed to great burdens. We are doing everything we can to detect signs of Islamist radicalization at an early stage and resolutely to oppose it."
Between 10% and 15% of Muslim inmates in German prisons are at risk of radicalization, according to Husamuddin Meyer, a German convert to Sufi Islam who now works as a cleric in the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) prison system. He said that the German prison system needs more imams, whom he claims would work to counteract radicalization.
NRW once had 114 prison imams, but now has only 25. The drop occurred after German authorities carried out security checks on prison imams and discovered that 97 imams were Turkish civil servants whose salaries were paid for by the Turkish government. Turkey refused to allow the imams to be interviewed by German officials. "The requirement that these employees should undergo a renewed security check is inappropriate and wrong," the Turkish consulate said. NRW Minister of Justice Peter Biesenbach responded: "The medium-term goal must be to organize religious and pastoral care independent of the Turkish state."
In Hesse, meanwhile, the Justice Ministry suspended a prison imam because of his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The surge in foreign inmates has led to overcrowded prisons and a shortage of staff. Prisons in Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia are currently at 100% capacity. In an effort to ease the overcrowding in NRW, more than 500 prisoners recently were released on a "Christmas amnesty." Prisons in Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg and Rhineland-Palatinate are at 90% capacity.
Meanwhile, NRW prison staff logged more than 500,000 hours of overtime during 2018, according to an internal judiciary report leaked to the Rheinische Post. The NRW prison system requires at least 500 new workers to ease staff shortages. Despite good pay and benefits, however, there few applicants due to the physical and emotional strains of the work.
In addition to the staff shortages, many prison facilities are dilapidated. More than 500 inmates at a prison in Münster, for example, were evacuated and transferred elsewhere because the building was in danger of collapsing. In Cologne, 100 detention centers currently are closed due to asbestos exposure. At least three billion euros are needed to rehabilitate ailing institutions just in NRW.
In an article entitled, "German Becomes a Foreign Language in Many Prisons," the Berliner Morgenpost reported on the growing number of conflicts between German prison officers and foreign inmates because of communication barriers. "The need for language courses and interpreting services is rising, as is competence in dealing with other cultures," said Dieter Lauinger, the Minister of Justice for Thuringia.
The GG/BO prisoners' union (Gefangenen-Gewerkschaft / Bundesweite Organisation) has called for prison managers to hire interpreters who can give orders and issue instructions in the mother tongues of the foreign inmates. Although some federal states do use interpreters, the cost is often prohibitive.
German authorities are also reporting an increase in inmate attacks on prison staff. The Prison Staff Union (Bund der Strafvollzugsbediensteten Deutschlands, BSBD) tallied 550 such "special occurrences" in 2017. In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, since 2016, the number of assaults on prison staff have more than doubled.
"The numbers are a reflection of our society," said Peter Brock, chairman of the BSBD union. "Insults, threats and attacks are part of everyday life."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.