Legal assistance for prisoners and their relatives
“Access to justice - for all!” This demand underlines the universal claim of every human being, regardless of his or her characteristics as an individual or biographical situation, to be respected in his or her fundamental rights. Deprivation of liberty, as the most intensive intervention of the state in the lives of its citizens, makes the penal system a particularly sensitive area, where effective legal protection is just as important as for citizens living in freedom. Since the everyday life of people in prison is inevitably characterized by numerous rules and restrictions, access to justice must extend to the time after sentencing and include the relatives indirectly affected by a prison sentence.
Although people in German prisons theoretically have access to justice, in reality, they often do not have the resources and skills to assert their rights due to language barriers, illiteracy, lack of financial resources and lack of knowledge of their rights. Research, case law and reports from various prison monitoring bodies have repeatedly shown that violations of rights occur in the prison system and that imprisonment often has a negative impact on the rights of people in prison and their families. Both the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the National Agency for the Prevention of Torture repeatedly criticised considerable shortcomings with regard to the design of the prison system. In addition, the courts have repeatedly condemned violations of fundamental and human rights, including human dignity.
This does not necessarily mean that corresponding violations occur regularly, structurally or even deliberately in the penal system. Accordingly, the necessity for vigilance does not arise from distrust of individual persons, but from the system’s susceptibility to error, whether intentional or neglectful. In an area in which the most serious restrictions on individual rights are already regularly carried out as a result of imprisonment and in which security and order must be maintained at the same time, there is always the risk that measures will be illegal and which, in the prison setting, can result in violations of fundamental and human rights.
In cooperation with Prof. Dr. Carsten Momsen, who heads clinical legal education at the Free University of Berlin, and in close exchange with Prof. Dr. Kirstin Drenkhahn, we are developing a training project for law students that will provide legal aid for people in prison and their families in Berlin. One task is to inform and educate people in prison about their rights. The aim of the project is not only to strengthen respect for human rights, but also to give people in prison a positive, empowering experience of the rule of law and justice. Rights education will enable people to advocate for themselves and resolve problems within the prison. In addition, university students also benefit from the experience in several ways. With the acquisition of in-depth knowledge of prison law, fundamental and human rights, as well as a practical module led by lawyers, students can acquire credit points by participating in the Law Clinic. In addition, the practical knowledge they gain through direct contact with people in prisons is invaluable for their career and raises awareness of the targeted application of law. For the academic community and the general public, our work will increase knowledge about prisons and identify areas and procedures where reforms are additional legal support is needed.
Our vision through 2025 is a steady regional expansion of our mission to structurally link universities and prisons until we have realized at least one cooperation between universities and prisons in each federal state. On the one hand, we improve access to justice in German prisons through this work. On the other hand, we help the universities to strengthen their social responsibility towards society as a whole and to link their teaching more closely to professional practice.
The “Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project” in the USA, the “Unabhängige Beratungsstelle für Menschen im Freiheitsentzug” in Switzerland and the German “Rechtsberatung für Gefangene in Bremen” are models for our ambitions. We have established relationships with experienced practitioners from these projects to learn from their successes.