A prisoner at JVA Heilbronn prison
A prisoner at JVA Heilbronn prison
Flora Wisdorff

RAVENSBURG - Otto Oberländer calls out a friendly "Hello!" as he enters the production hall where a dozen men work at a long table putting garden sprinklers together. The men, who all wear blue boiler suits, give a friendly acknowledgement of the boss’s greeting and then get back to work. The fact that the door to the hall is locked doesn’t strike, one way or the other. It’s only when Oberländer refers to his “rogues” instead of workers that we remember this isn’t any old medium-sized enterprise: it’s the JVA Ravensburg prison just outside the city of Ravensburg in the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Inmates don’t just build sprinklers: among other things, they make furniture, switching circuits - “we make everything except lukewarm ice cubes,” says Oberländer, and that includes a recent a shipment of dildos fabricated out of high-grade steel.

Ninety-five percent of the 415 prisoners in the Ravensburg facility leave their cells for 7.4 hours a day to work. The remaining 5 percent are either not fit to work or off sick. While some of the inmates work for the prison itself, in the kitchen or cleaning, 45 percent of them work for the lucrative business of producing goods ordered by clients. This prison manufacture is considered a model of its kind in Germany.

A competitive business

The business of prison work was for a long time a fairly low-key affair, and there wasn’t a lot of competition. But then around the millennium clients started giving their business to firms in Eastern Europe, and prison enterprises like the one in Baden-Württemberg, but also in Nordrhein-Westfalen and Bavaria, saw their order books emptying fast.

Since then, they’ve become competitive. In any case, "the days when prisoners just sat in their cells are over," says Volker Herrling, managing director of the Vollzugliches Arbeits Wesens Baden-Württemberg, a state facility founded 12 years ago to modernize the sector. It also sells items made by inmates on its website.

As part of the trend, Düsseldorf built a new prison with 5,000 square meters (53,820 square feet) dedicated to production and storage.

While the economic crisis in 2009 also affected the prison manufactures, things are now looking up, says Herrling, not only because of an improved economic situation but because the prisons are modernizing. "We’ve been seeing a major boom in orders since 2010," he says, and this pertains to Bavaria and Nordrhein-Westfalen as well: the Baden-Württemberg facilities turned over 30 million euros in 2011, and in Bavaria turn over in the same year was 43.6 million.

With labor costs rising in Eastern Europe, and the additional cost of transportation for goods manufactured there, the choice for many firms now is “German prison-produced or China” says Herrling – with "Made in Germany" the preferred option of many.

Giving prisoners something to do

Otto Oberländer believes that even if they didn’t have to work, 80 percent of prison inmates would voluntarily show up for work. It’s a way of breaking up what would otherwise be 23 hours a day in their cell and one hour outdoors in the prison yard. Prisoner Heiner Müller (not his real name) agrees. Incarcerated at Ravensburg for breaking into a cash machine, the quiet 27-year-old former computer science student says that working brings order into the day, providing something to do “so you don’t lose your mind.”

Müller learned additional skills in prison, and since he is working on a project for a major automobile manufacturer he only has to go back to his cell at night.

In 2011 in Baden-Württemberg on average 5,000 out of 7,000 total prisoners worked, while in Bavaria over half of its 12,000 prisoners did so. The obligation for prisoners to work is under discussion in 10 German states, but Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Nordrhein-Westfalen believe firmly in the system.

“Chicken in handcuffs”

Prisoners have for a long time worked on their own in prisons, making furniture for state authorities or doing prison repair work. Today, prison brands like "Jailers," "Haftsache," and "Santa Fu" produce items like cookbooks (“Chicken in Handcuffs”), slippers, or honey, that are sold online.

Some brands operate out of Ravensburg as well, but Oberländer prefers his prisoners to work for clients, because working conditions tend to approximate what they will encounter when they leave the jail and find jobs on the outside.

In 2011, Ravensburg’s net profit on a turnover of three million euros was a very lucrative 500,000 euros. Prisoners earn at most 1.97 euros per hour, but their health insurance premiums and contributions to unemployment insurance are paid by the state, and there are no deductions made for their pension plans.

Oberländer says that motivating prisoners -- particularly well-educated ones -- to work for this kind of money can be an issue, particularly as only three sevenths of the money they earn is actually paid out. The rest is put in a savings account to help them when they are released from prison.

He says the work that prisoners do uses “perhaps up to 70 percent” of their potential.

Oberländer believes there are disadvantages to the system: for example, delivery trucks can’t leave the premises when the prisoners are out of their cells because of the risk of escape; older prisons may have trouble meeting space requirements for increased production; or prisoners themselves may take less than desirable initiatives like the time “Heil Hitler” messages were placed in an order for an Israeli customer.

But one thing he doesn’t worry about is losing business if there is another economic crisis. On the contrary: demographic developments, and the tendency of judges to incarcerate fewer offenders and have them wear ankle monitors instead, has him worrying that the numbers of prisoners will shrink to the point “that we won’t be able to keep up with orders.”

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