| Alkimos Sartoros |
Leoben, Austria (dpa) – Nestling on a slope in the Austrian mountains, the airy glass and steel design of Leoben Prison sends a signal that this penitentiary takes a different approach to locking up criminals.
The wall near the prison gate is emblazoned with Article 10 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
Visitors pass through an entrance area that in some ways reminds one of the waiting area for a paediatrician. There are softly cushioned sofas and chairs, colourful artificial flowers and a box with toys.
“We don’t simply want to lock away inmates,” said Friedrich Wolfslehner, the 46-year-old deputy prison director.
“Contact with the outside world is very important,” the man with short brown hair and a chin beard says in a calm voice.
The entrance to Leoben Prison. Here, prisoners are encouraged to be more independent, doing their own housework. The structure, with plenty of modern glass and steel, has been praised as a model for the rest of Europe – PHOTOS: DPA
Leoben is a steel and mining town of 24,000 not far from Graz. It has a medieval city centre and is home to several industrial companies and a university.
The opening of the prison in 2005 was accompanied by criticism. Citizens felt that the building by Austrian architect Josef Hohensinn was too chic, and that its price tag of 25 million euros (US$32 million) was too high.
However, Leoben has come to be seen as a model for other prisons in Austria and in neighbouring Germany.
On a recent visit, two women were talking through a glass partition in the visitors’ area, which has a light-coloured wooden floor.
Some of the 211 inmates are allowed to receive unannounced visits from family members at least once a week.
Most of the male and female prisoners are serving sentences of up to 18 months, but there are some who have been transferred from other Austrian prisons to serve longer terms here.
“The concept is: as much outside security as possible, as much openness inside as possible,” Wolfslehner said.
While the site is protected by a six-metre wall, barbed wire and cameras, inmates are given keys with which they can lock their rooms from the inside.
An atmosphere of utter calm dominates the prison complex.
The light-filled halls and corridors are silent, thanks to sound-absorbing floors, walls and ceilings. There is no shouting, no loud footsteps, no heavy doors slamming shut.
“It has a positive psychological effect on prisoners, but also on our employees,” Wolfslehner said.
“Employees spend longer times in prison than the inmates,” he added.
Most of the delinquents live in individual cells outfitted with TVs and showers.
They are grouped into so-called detention communities of 18 people, sharing kitchens and common rooms.
Guenther M was sitting in one of these common rooms, folding his big hands in front of his belly.
At 54, he is one of the building’s older inhabitants. Most are between 20 and 30 years old.
Behind him, tree tops glowing in the afternoon sun can be seen on the Alpine hills through the large but barred windows.
“I have been here for four and a half years,” he says in his bear-like voice.
He was sentenced to 10 years for business fraud, and he was allowed to serve the second half of his term in Leoben.
“It’s a luxury facility. One is locked up, but everything here is much easier,” says M, whose full name cannot be published under Austrian privacy laws.
Inmates are allowed to exercise regularly, by using the prison’s table tennis tables, weight rooms, ball courts and outside sports fields.
In addition, there are a library, a multimedia room and an inter-confessional prayer room.
Those who serve time here cook their own meals and do their own laundry.
“How is a prisoner supposed to learn to take care of himself if we do everything for him here?” Wolfslehner said.
“I have seen inmates elsewhere who were afraid of their first day in freedom because they thought they would not be able to cope,” he added.
“The Leoben correctional facility is a model for Europe and quite unique,” said Bern Maelicke, a rehabilitation expert at the German Institute for Social Economics in Kiel.
Unlike many older prisons that have undergone piecemeal adaptation, Leoben is really geared towards re-integrating criminals into society, he said.
The Austrian justice ministry says there is not yet enough data from former Leoben inmates to show whether they were less likely to relapse into crime than those who served time elsewhere.
The Leoben prison also has a common kitchen, where 32-year-old inmate Markus L is working.
“Detention is detention, no matter what,” he said. “One doesn’t forget that one is in prison.”
However, the atmosphere in Leoben was comparatively pleasant, apart from small frictions, he said.
Not all of Austria’s penitentiary system is as humane and shiny as in Leoben.
Several cases of alleged neglect and abuse on behalf of guards have been reported this year.
The weekly Der Falter uncovered the case of a mentally ill inmate in the Stein facility near Vienna, who received medical treatment only after a strong smell emanated from his cell. He was found to have festering ulcers on his legs.
“Here, they talk to us when they feel that someone isn’t doing well,” Markus L said as he cleared tables in the prison cafeteria.
After casting a glance around the room, he added: “You won’t miss this once you’re outside. But until then, being here is definitely easier for your mind.”