A Day In The Life

An anonymous middle class English woman writes about her experiences during a brief stay in prison after being arrested at a demonstration against US Secretary of State Alexander Haig's 1981 visit to Berlin.

An interesting article in the context of the counterculture of the time, though it is doubtful that this was representative of the experience of working class German prisoners then.

Originally appeared in Bar Fax.

On September 13, I was among 50,000 people in the anti-Haig demo. Two days later, after visiting a few police stations, I found myself in prison, as a policeman certified that he saw me throwing stones - I had not thrown anything, and now I have strong proofs of my innocence (photos and witnesses). However. I was imprisoned for five weeks and I think that it might be useful for everybody to know a bit about it.

Berlin might seem to be a very permissive city. Geman justice is powerful and quite pitiless. Apart from a few bank robbers and junkies who represent the greatest part of the prison population, the women I met were in jail for quite unimportant things. The least one gets for stealing a pair of shoes or a bottle of whiskey is one month.

If you ever get caught, innocent or not, the police can keep you up to midnight on the day following your arrest. Then you see the judge who decides if you remain free or go to pail. The biggest prison for men is Moabit (2,500 men). The biggest for women is Lehterstrasse (about 500 women). There are other smaller prisons such as Kantstrasse. where I was. Kantstrasse is very small (22 women, almost a family!) and to my great surprise I soon discovered that through my window I could see and talk to men prisoners (about 50 men) on the other side of the yard.

From the first day I asked to be alone, but there can be up to ten people in one cell. My new home was about 1.5 metres wide and 4 metres long. It had a bed, a table, a chair, a cupboard, a toilet, a washbasin and a heater, a window with strong bars facing the iron door which had a spy-hole at about 2 metres from the ground. For communication and sunlight the whole prison population sits on cupboards or stands on tables for hours and hours.

Breakfast is at seven o'clock (eight o'clock on weekends] with dark or white bread and margarine plus hot water for coffee. We called 'coffee' what is in fact chicory without caffeine. At ten o'clock free hour: an hour in a yard with a few trees and flowers, an hour to speak, walk and run, take the sun and be with the others. At eleven o'clock hot water for 'coffee'. At twelve the only hot meal of the day and distribution of the Tagesspiegel (free) [a newspaper], hot water again. At five bread and margarine plus cheese or paté, hot water.

In Kantstrasse one has a shower three times a week in groups of four or five. Every week one can buy things from a list: food, tobacco and beauty products — up to sixty marks worth. The orders take one week to arrive. When the judge has dealt with every individuals' case, all women can stay together in the TV and ping -pong rooms from five to nine.

In every cell there is a speaker for radio and the stations are centrally chosen in Moabit. Lights are turned out at midnight. Radios can be switched on from six in the morning until ten in the evening. The prison also provides all the necessary clothes but prisoners don't necessarily have to wear them. The cells are carefully controlled every week during the free hour or shower times and letters from other prisoners or 'illegal' books are taken away. So that was my timetable for a month and it still is for several thousand people in Berlin.

There are a few special problems for foreigners. When I was imprisoned I didn't speak one word of German, so langugae was my main problem. On the first day I was completely lost, ready for free hour when they came to get me for the shower or getting a pencil when I wanted writing paper.

I was forced to learn German very quickly; the main problem is for hearings or for official papers. Everything is in German and absolutely none of the papers are translated. They only provide an interpreter for the trial. I was lucky because mv lawyer spoke very good English.

Language is a also a problem when it comes to letters and visits as all letters are read by the judge. In German they take about one week to arrive. I got my first letter after a month and my parents and friend got mine also one month later, Visits were another problem. A prisoner can receive a half-hour visit every two weeks but they are listened to by a warden and have to be in German. When my mother came to visit she had to pay an interpreter fifty marks for the half hour.

For one month I had no news at all as I never succeeded in having the right to a foreign paper. I never had anything to read, although the consul sent me magazines and books, because, of course, they had first to be seen by the judge.

To conclude I would say that I never had so much spare time in my life and I tried to spend it in the most constructive way possible. I wrote a lot, drew a lot and learned as much German as I could. My days in prison reminded me of an English religious boarding school for girls where I spent my childhood. With a little less freedom, but without masses and prayers.

I would say that as the food was not too bad, the guards always correct and the linen really clean. I had everything I needed except freedom, which IS everything in itself.