Do I have to work in prison?

"Sit down", this verb belongs in everyday language to prison sentences like the watchtower to the prison wall. In reality, a week in prison - not unlike "outside" - means 35 to 40 hours of work. The prisoners not only work for the prison canteen or laundry, but also take on production steps for hundreds of commercial companies. Including large corporations such as Miele, Gardena, Ikea, Rossmann and VW. They assemble wiring harnesses for cars, assemble vacuum cleaners, make pens or package counted screws. While "outside" at least 9.19 euros, the current minimum wage, is paid, the hourly wage behind bars is one to three euros nationwide.

Far too little, says inmate Manuel Matzke, a trained event technician. "Honest work should be paid honestly - even in prison." In 2014, a Saxon court sentenced the 32-year-old to a prison term of seven years and eleven months. He was imprisoned in Zeithain, near Dresden, for economic fraud, robbery and assault. One of his 2017 pay slips said he had a net monthly wage of 266.47 euros, even though he worked 38 hours a week. First in a training workshop for auto mechanics and then in the food counter of the correctional facility.

Prisoners demand minimum wage and pension rights

He was moved to the open prison six months ago and has been an outdoor prisoner since then. He is now allowed to work outside, but after work he has to go back to the prison and spend the night there. For four years he has been involved in an association for prisoners called the "prisoners' union nationwide organization" (GGBO).

Detainees are not allowed to form a trade union, which is why the GGBO officially acts as a "non-legally binding association". A four-digit number of prisoners have joined so far, the association does not want to give more precise information. Their ultimate goals are minimum wages and pension entitlements while in prison, as well as the right to form a true union. Manuel Matzke is now the association's nationwide spokesman.

Many of the German prisons not only offer services for other companies, but also sell products made by the inmates themselves. To do this, they operate their own online shops with names like "lattice shop", "Haftsache" or "prison shop". There you can, for example, order hand-assembled fire bowls, smokers with a vertical stripe look, bird houses or wooden planters. Prisons are medium-sized businesses with assembly halls.

In Germany, all prisoners are obliged to work, except for those who are in custody, are of retirement age or are unable to work. For the various activities behind bars, prisoners receive a so-called basic remuneration, which corresponds to nine percent of the average wage of all Germans who pay into the pension insurance. "Nine percent, that's not an appreciation, that's far too little," says criminologist Bernd Maelicke. For 15 years he was in charge of the penal system in Schleswig-Holstein as a ministerial conductor. An updated edition of his book "Das Knast-Dilemma" was recently published, in which he criticized fundamental deficits in German penal systems. Including the low earnings of the prisoners. Imprisonment is a custodial sentence and should not be an additional financial punishment, says Maelicke.

A lot is more expensive in prison

"With this measly income, you will be told in prison that honest work does not pay off," says prison spokesman Manuel Matzke. The 100 to 300 euros a month must also be enough to pay for toothpaste, shower gel, magazines or phone calls. The latter are significantly more expensive in most prisons than "outside". A 30-minute call to a mobile phone in Matzke's JVA in Zeithain still cost 21 euros until 2016. But Matzke sued against it and got the right in court, now you can call a cell phone for ten cents a minute. However, other detention centers have stuck to their high telephone costs.

In addition, tasks in the workshops of the prisons are often monotonous, and guards sometimes "nagged" the prisoners at work and treated them "from above," says Matzke. Nevertheless, the weekends are "the worst, vegetation is the order of the day, it is very bleak and the two days drag on eerily". Matzke has dealt with his crimes, he says. "Now I can look at myself in the mirror again."

But there are two groups among the prison staff: The friendly ones who would talk to you normally and say: "Hey, come to me if you have problems." And the others who would disparage you and make you feel that you are "scum".

Since he has been outdoors, Matzke has been doing an internship at the local association of the Left in Riesa, nine kilometers from the prison. Although he has worked since leaving school, he is worried that he will not be able to live on his pension. During detention, prisoners do not pay into the pension fund and accordingly receive less money later. Especially for prisoners with long sentences, poverty in old age is mapped out, says Matzke. Rehabilitation looks different for him.