One thing is unusual in the Therapy Wing: you refer to the prisoners as clients.
That’s right, we call them clients. So the distinction is clear, that this is a Therapy Wing, not just the usual prison structure. The aim is that the clients feel part of the therapeutic process, and not just like normal prisoners.
What happens during the therapy process?
It’s a multi-modular programme, with different phases of treatment. The main module is our self-management group. It takes place twice a week, with up to eight men. Each module covers various themes related to the risk factors for violent or sexual criminal behaviours. One expectation we have of the men is that they don’t just sit there passively and listen. It’s not like school. They have to interact and we try to teach them particular skills. One of those skills is self-reflection. They tell us their biography; the crime is integrated into their whole life story. For many, it’s the first chance they’ve had to tell their personal story and this process always introduces conflicts.
In the end, it’s healthy for people to lie. They are protecting themselves. If I lie, I know I’ve done something I might feel ashamed of.
We have to proceed very carefully, so the men don’t feel they’re being cross-examined. They’ve already been through all that and we can’t slip into the role of prosecutors or the police. We are part of the criminal justice system, and our clients are well aware of that; the big challenge we face is to push that aside, so the therapeutic process is also possible inside the justice system. In the past, therapists focused on the concrete circumstances of the crime and making the men confess everything. Coming clean was something they often talked about. Today, we don’t expect them to always tell the truth. I think that would be asking too much of them. It just has to be enough. In the end, it’s healthy for people to lie. They are protecting themselves. If I lie, I know I’ve done something I might feel ashamed of. The clients who don’t lie, who tell us everything, they can be very problematic. Firstly, they can’t protect themselves. And secondly, they tell us everything so freely that maybe they don’t feel guilty at all. Maybe they think they did everything right.
So lies are naturally a part of these stories they tell? Is there an intrinsic truth to these stories?
That’s a philosophical question and in my opinion – yes, there is a truth, independent of us and how we see things. But it’s quite possible that we won’t learn this truth, maybe just parts of it. Because people were involved, and people always tell their own stories, which are more or less true. As psychologists, we are relatively good at speculating, but we shouldn’t be so arrogant to assume that we can tell exactly what happened, what it felt like, or what he thought. I think that’s impossible. It’s always speculation in part. That’s particularly true of these very serious crimes; we can’t explain them. Judges and experts called in for evaluations try to do this. They want to explain every single step, because they have to prove intent to kill. But it’s a fact that in every crime, one factor is the immediate situation, where so many things come together. In one case, there’s a murder, in another, it’s grievous bodily harm. It’s very difficult for our justice system to deal with this. Courts and investigators need clear lines, so they can show responsibility.
I have the feeling that, faced with a crime like this, it’s only human to ask, „Why?”
Yes, why? Exactly!
But is there any answer?
I don’t think so. Or I think there are answers, but they always leave us dissatisfied, as therapists and especially as a society. Someone says, I was so angry I killed her ... Who is really satisfied with that, even if it’s true? Everyone else will think, I’ve been really angry in the past too, but I didn’t kill anyone! It’s always about the overall situation: being angry and all the other factors that come together. It’s a bit like a puzzle. And in the whole context, anger can explain something. But only half-explain it. Most of us aren’t happy with these answers and at the end of the day we might say that they are sick, they are sick sex offenders. But that’s not an answer either, it’s a label, nothing more. In therapy, I try not to spend too much time on these questions. We look at the concrete circumstances in the immediate run-up to the crime and work on steps where the client can take responsibility.
You can never forget the victims ... That’s also a burden we have to carry.
In the case of Stefan S., how come he was in the flat? He says, I climbed through the window – that’s something a therapist can work with. I stole underwear and had an unhealthy relationship to this woman – that’s something to work with in therapy. These are the really important things. That’s where Stefan S. has total responsibility. I know that society sometimes thinks we concentrate only on the men, but that’s not true. We have access to the case files and we see the misery that victims suffered, how they were killed, or how women and children were abused. Many colleagues here have children of their own, and if children were involved you have to be able to separate off those personal feelings in this job. You can never forget the victims ... That’s also a burden we have to carry. Our goal is that the men never re-offend after a possible release. If we make mistakes in our assessments, it can have serious consequences for the men and for society.
And how do you cope with that responsibility?
We have to remember that we can never arrive at a perfect decision, it is always an assessment. With the training and the instruments we have, we can arrive at relatively good decisions, based on research. If I do everything according to the manual, to the best of my knowledge, then I can mostly sleep well at night. But there is always a risk. It remains informed guesswork. But what also helps is that in the release process, the justice system divides responsibility. We write reports, the state prosecutor writes a report, there is an external evaluation, in the courtroom there is at least one other judge involved in the ruling, and the prisoner has a defence lawyer calling everything into question and at the end of the day … perhaps there isn't a consensus, but there was a process and a debate.
Does the system make mistakes?
Yes, it does. If we decide not to release someone – that kind of mistake is hard to register, because he doesn’t have the chance to show that we were wrong. He stays in prison. The mistakes that register are the cases where people re-offend. With high-risk men who have committed sex offences, the relapse quota is around 50 percent, and those are just the reported offences. There is a large number of cases that remain undetected, and that is even larger if we don’t treat the men. If we treat them, we can reduce the figure by about 40 percent. So it goes down from 50 percent to 25 or 30 percent. Of course society will say, that’s still too high. And I agree.
I have to accept that some people will re-offend because it would be much worse to do nothing.
But I know that these men will be released, as a group, and if we do nothing, we will have a relapse quota of at least 50 percent. And I couldn’t live with that. In other words, I have to accept that some people will re-offend because it would be much worse to do nothing. The alternative is a justice system like in the US, where men receive sentences of 20, 40, or 50 to several hundred years for crimes that we hand down five or six years for here. Then we would have many more prisons in Germany and we would also destroy many families. These men who have committed the most serious crimes, they are also part of our society. Now they have to show that they can take responsibility for their behaviour. But if they show that, and if we are convinced, then I believe we should give them that chance. It makes us better as a society.