Xmas im Knast

While many Berliners look forward to Christmas – the Glühwein glugging, family gathering and present swapping – some don’t. For the men at the Charlottenburg detention center, it is the worst time of the year.

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Photo by Janina Gallert

So this is prison country. A meandering swathe of semi-industrial sprawl out on Berlin’s northwest fringe between Ringbahn and airport, scarred with potholed roads, dilapidated buildings and fly-tipped junk, all of it sombre under weeping skies. That society’s least wanted have been dumped here comes as no surprise – out of sight, out of mind – the inmates of the Justizvollzugsanstalt-Charlottenburg are the neighbours nobody wants.

Over 300 of them call the squat concrete complex home and spend their days one to a cell, counting down the long wait to liberty. Their stay in the JVA, particularly at this time of year, is a joyless one. Sunlight falls through windows only in slender shafts squeezed between bars, heavy keys jangle in the hands of guards and tired linoleum squeaks underfoot. Monotony, not Christmas spirit, rules.

“At Christmas they really feel the weight of being separated from their families and realise what it means to be locked away,” says Bernd Kotré, the prison’s Catholic chaplain. People in the outside world relish a holiday, but a day off from their enforced menial jobs seems to be the last thing prisoners need: “All any of them want is for the days to go quickly,” says Kotré. “Christmas is an idle day that reinforces the boredom of being shut in here. It does not pass by lightly.”


In such an environment, Kotré has his work cut out for him. His role (alongside his Protestant colleague) is to ensure that inmates have a confidant to turn to when the outlook from their cell becomes too bleak. No one is turned away, no matter how lapsed their faith or how prosaic their reasons for wanting a chat. Kotré’s duty is to care, even if he admits having to teach some inmates to fold their hands when they pray. He is a realist who knows his flock are less than pious, but under the radar of the rest of society, they deserve attention, advice and humanity nonetheless.

Inmates can send Kotré a note with their concerns, and he in turn brings them to the relative comfort of his office for a chat, a coffee and a biscuit. It is the simplest of interactions, but in an institution where isolation is the norm, it goes a long way to ensuring inmates’ welfare. Yet even Kotré’s room has barred windows, half covered with a stick-on frieze of imitation stained glass. “Prisoners can’t come to church,” says Kotré, “so we come to them.” His ministrations are most vital and his flock at their most listless during the festive period.


With a reflective mood set, the 58-year-old chaplain then collects one of his more conscientious charges, Mario S., from his cell to join the conversation. “The most important thing is to show no fear,” Kotré says of dealing with inmates, and when Mario enters the room it is clear why at times this can be difficult. Although immediately warm and courteous, Mario, in his prison-issue blue combats and white sweatshirt, is a colossus.

Currently seeing out the latter part of a three-year sentence in the JVA-Charlottenburg for acting as an accessory in a drug deal, Mario previously spent 22 years in prison for his part in a murky gang-related double murder. Despite flecks of steel in his short, slicked-back hair and narrow strip of beard, the 48-year-old Berliner is in rude health and looks a full ten years younger than his age. Having presumably been interviewed numerous times by the police, he gives little away for free.

He remembers growing up in Kreuzberg fondly and says his childhood Christmases were happy occasions (“Definitely happier than now”). By the age of five or six, he had discovered the shocking truth that Father Christmas does not exist and survived the bitter revelation thanks only to the continuing sweetener of presents under the tree. His first Christmas in jail was brutal by contrast and best described in one word: “Scheiße!” “I was on remand awaiting trial, locked in my cell 23 hours a day, alone and away from family. It was tough,” says Mario.


Though the regimen in the JVA-Charlottenburg is somewhat different, there is nothing to get excited about in the run-up to the festive period. Mario says it’s impossible to look forward to it. Division runs through the prisoners’ ranks and nixes any sense of community that could exist within the institution’s impenetrable walls. Contact with the outside world rather than his peers is what each man craves most, but visiting days in December remain limited to the same three dates as every other month: the last falls just before Christmas, the next not until after New Year.

Letters and cards arrive meanwhile, but bring only bittersweet news of loved ones outside. Presents can be sent in – but only of pre-approved staples like coffee and sweets, which can be bought once a month in the prison food shop anyway (along with chilli sauce to enliven the canteen fare).

What does get sent in largely gets traded away on the prison’s thriving black market for what the prisoners really want. “Anything, absolutely anything”, can be procured, says Mario, but he is a man of simple tastes: “I use my stuff to get toiletries, razors, cologne and scented candles, because everything in here stinks.”

On December 24th there is a service from the chaplain, attended not only by inmates but also by the JVA’s top brass. After that… precious little else.

“We do get the right to call home,” says Mario. “But you can’t help picking up on the bad atmosphere, that they’re sad you’re not there, that your wife misses you.” With time off from their jobs, the prisoners are then returned earlier than usual to their cells to stew, with only TV for company. “It is the most depressing day of the year,” contends Mario.

The food doesn’t help the mood either. Forget goose, carp or gingerbread. “It’s even worse than normal,” says Mario. “The contractors don’t exactly want to work hard at Christmas and are just in a hurry to get home.” For the inmates, that means soup, potato salad and cold sausage for Christmas dinner: not quite the laden table and merry feasting the outside world looks forward to. Prisoners are offered a chocolate Santa as well, but for Mario that only adds insult to injury. “I won’t accept a gift from the same people who search my cell everyday or treat me like shit,” he says. “Only those with no character take them.”


It is an unrelentingly bleak scene and one some would argue the prisoners fully deserve. Kotré, however, passionately believes that humane treatment of prisoners leads to less repeat offending and warns that anyone rushing to castigate the prison population should pause for thought. “I remember some of the sins of my youth,” he says, “and it might only have been providence that kept me out of here. It can happen to anyone so quickly.” Mario agrees and says somewhat chillingly, “Your wife or your child could be attacked, and then you might see the world very differently and do something that lands you in prison.”

It is an informed view from a man with more experience of violence than most, even if Mario says he has changed since the murders he perpetrated. “I regretted what I did almost straight afterwards,” he says. “I spent a lot of time when I was on remand reevaluating what it meant for my family, for the victims’ families. No one deserved to die – I had no right to act like judge and jury.” Prison though, he is adamant, is not responsible for the change. He has grown up, looked inside himself and improved his temperament – despite, rather than because of, his cell-bound life.

Rediscovering his faith has helped him. “Admittedly I’m a criminal and didn’t always take it seriously when I was on the outside,” he says. “But I grew up a Catholic and now the church is very important to me. It’s not something I talk about to other inmates or anything, just something personal.” He prays regularly, “to not be bitter, and for support when there’s bad news from outside,” and will need all his faith to get him through his last (good behaviour willing) Christmas in prison.

If he had even a tree to mark the occasion, there are two presents Mario wishes he could discover beneath it: “First and foremost, the ability to undo what I did,” he says. “Otherwise, my freedom. I want to live a normal life again – because this is no life and there’s certainly nothing normal about it.” Like most of us at this time of year, Mario has an uncomplicated plea: “I want to be at home with my family.”

As the conversation winds down and Mario prepares to be returned to his cell, his words hang in the air. There are many fractured families missing men in the JVA – and many families missing members because of the men in the JVA. For all of them, it will be a less-than-merry Christmas.

What Christmas in the joint is not like…

“Jailhouse Rock” Despite the otherwise faultless naturalism of this 1957 Elvis Presley vehicle, there is little rock in prison. The homoerotic vibe of the title number may be more in tune with reality.

“Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” The men have little appetite for the performing arts and there is no funding anyway for a Christmas show. Even Cash wouldn’t get a gig in Charlottenburg.

Shawshank Redemption The chances of escaping from the JVA are slim indeed and any tunnel would probably surface amidst oncoming traffic on the busy road outside. Tim Robbins would stand no chance.

Filipino dancing videos Most of these cult YouTube videos seem to have been realised at gunpoint to satisfy the whim of the crazy prison warden. The JVA is a more humane institution and besides, the prisoners here don’t wear orange overalls.