OBERHAUSEN -- The sound of the alarm goes right through you and through the prison walls. In the former penitentiary in Oberhausen, somebody has set it off. Markus Brehmer rushes out of cell 220 and calls down the hall: Who did that? Mr. Reimann, please turn that off! Somebody in a nearby cell had meant to turn on the light and pushed the wrong button by mistake.
A few moments later, silence returns, and Brehmer continues to show a group of reporters around the different floors of the facility with its steel doors and barred partitions. There arent any more prisoners here. This old penitentiary opposite Oberhausens train station is empty, though not for long.
A first group of sex offenders and violent criminals are due to move in soon. These are men who are still considered dangerous, but who thanks to a Supreme Court decision are being released from preventive detention in the penal system.
The former prison, which still looks exactly like a prison, has now been baptized the Oberhausen Therapy Center. The facility is being run by the Landschaftsverband Rheinland (LVR), a service association charged with the task by the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. Brehmer, who is employed by the LVR, is the section head in charge of the new therapy center.
On the tour, Brehmer highlights the additional bars on the windows, made of Mangan hard metal, the additional surveillance cameras, the service rooms with the control monitors on each floor. He also points out an unobtrusive grey box mounted on a hall wall: Thats the personal emergency call system one of our biggest investments, he says.
As soon as a guard presses a red button on his mobile phone or pulls a pin out (much in the same way one would remove the pin from a grenade) an emergency call gets sent from this box to a group of guards known as the alarm group. They can see what floor the call is coming from, and rush to help.
A million-euro makeover
Nordrhein-Westfalens red/green (socialist and green party) government spent some 1.2 million euros on converting the old jail, which used to house 80 prisoners, but is now limited to 18 people for whom 40 guards, doctors, psychologists and social workers will be responsible.
Many walls that previously divided the space into small cells were broken through to create larger spaces each equipped with a TV, tables and a kitchen. Patients will be living in groups.
Nordrhein-Westfalen is the first German state to come up with a solution for dealing with dangerous criminals who cannot be let back out into society after they have served their prison sentences but who, according to a 2009 decision of the European Court of Human Rights, cannot continue to be detained in a penal institution.
An amendment to the law in 1998 made it possible to continue preventive detention for an undetermined length of time. But the decision of the European Court is relevant to all the so called old cases i.e. cases involving people convicted prior to the change and who, after serving their sentence and a maximum of 10 years preventive detention, were kept behind bars because of the level of danger they represented for society.
German courts reacted differently to the Strasbourg judges decision, but a law that went into effect at the beginning of the year stated that prisoners who are considered extremely dangerous or are mentally disturbed must be transferred from preventive detention in a prison to a closed therapeutic facility.
But its taking a while to find locations for such facilities and to install them. Meanwhile some detainees, released into society for lack of therapy centers, committed new crimes even though they were under around-the-clock police surveillance. Two weeks ago, a 49-year-old pedophile managed to evade police and shortly afterwards abused a small girl.
The Oberhausen Therapy Center is meant to prevent perpetrators who are potential recidivists from getting back into society too quickly after they are released from preventive detention. But, says head psychologist Verena Peykan, the therapy they are getting is being done with an eye to their eventual return to society.
According to experts, fast results should not be anticipated. These are mostly men, 60 or older who have been behind bars for decades and with the expectation that they would spend the rest of their lives in jail were not given therapy.
The first inmate, a 63-year-old man, is due to arrive within a couple of weeks.
The converted Oberhausen jail is seen as a temporary solution until the end of 2012. The state health ministry is looking around for a permanent location discreetly, so as to keep public opposition to a minimum.
Read the original article in German
Photo - astuecker