LÜNEN – Anger runs high as more than 1,000 people press into the community hall in Lünen, a town in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The noise level is deafening. Shrill whistles emanate particularly fiercely from a group of Turkish women wearing headscarves. They have brought their children along. Another group weighs in with a chorus of “Objection!” “Objection!” A man yells, “We are the people!”
Brochures that had been laid on the seats to explain things and calm spirits are torn up and thrown about the hall like confetti. Some people are holding placards that say "Criminals More Important than Kids," "Think of the Children," "No Forensic Facility in Lünen."
The group is waiting for the state health minister, Barbara Steffens, to appear. A lot of the anger is directed at her.
While this concerns Lünen, it is most likely that people in most German towns would react in the same way if they were threatened by what residents face here: a high-security clinic for 150 mentally ill criminals, about 20% of whom can be expected to be seriously disturbed sex offenders.
When Lünen’s mayor Hans Wilhelm Stodollick appears, he is booed as he sits down in the front row. While he too opposes the facility, a series of misunderstandings has given the impression that he offered to the authorities the abandoned lot where the facility is being planned. This is not so; the land does not belong to the town and so was not his to offer.
More pandemonium ensues as Health Minister Steffens takes her seat on stage, accompanied by Uwe Dönisch-Seidel, who is in charge of the 14 existing forensic facilities and who, together with experts from the ministry of health, selected five locations for new facilities.
This is the second group of irate citizens Steffens has faced in two days, but this one in Lünen is far worse than the few hundred she faced the day before in Reichshof. The minister speaks calmly, and tries to explain that across the nation there are 750 more offenders than places for them; that existing facilities are seriously overextended; and that “in a spirit of fairness” it has been decided to parcel out new facilities all around the country.
There are mentally ill people "in societies everywhere," Steffens said, and they must be looked after in “hospitals that meet security requirements.” In our society, these people "have the right to be treated and cured,” the minister stressed.
As Steffens spoke she was repeatedly interrupted by cries from the audience, which was entirely unreceptive to her message.
Taking things into their own hands
A year ago, Steffens wrote to 125 towns asking if they had a suitable spot for a forensic facility. "None of those communities wanted a facility, so we had to develop other selection criteria,” she explained, adding that the land in Lünen was the most suited to the purpose. Steffens was unwilling to be precise on the criteria, as she did not want to alarm other communities.
Dirk Hartmann, who heads a newly formed citizens’ initiative against the planned facility, explains why the plans to build a facility here are particularly irritating to locals. He describes Lünen as a town where many are vulnerable and disadvantaged, with little purchase power. “To make a long story short, things are crappy for us."
Hartmann says that when the state government “hands out golden spoons, they regularly bypass Lünen – but we’re fine for a facility like this.” He said that there was solidarity among citizens, local associations and politicians on this issue. "We really will do everything, legally and with whatever other means we have at our disposal, to prevent this."
To frenetic applause, Hartmann also made the important point that “we are not against forensic facilities; we are against one here.” This made Steffens’s stance more difficult to support, particularly as Hartmann pointed out that old, disused military installations, or abandoned coal mining sites, would be far more suitable. The minister defended the choice of Lünens, repeating that it was the most suitable available site, but those present were not buying her argument.
After the turbulent discussion had gone on for two hours, and some locals had left in frustration, a young man took the microphone and asked the health minister, "What would you think if we, the citizens, looked for a suitable place?" Surprised, the minister replied: "If somebody comes up with available, suitable land in this district we’ll look into it."
At which the young man turned to the mayor and said, "Let’s get going, Herr Stodollick."