For this week's broadcast, a 60 Minutes team paid a visit to a modern German prison nicknamed "the Five-Star Slammer" by the German press. The inmate conditions they found at Heidering Prison about 20 miles south of Berlin, Germany would shock most Americans.
The prison is surrounded by fences, not walls. The hallways are filled with light and inspiring views of the countryside beyond the perimeter. Thought-provoking artwork by inmates is on display. Prisoners walk the grounds in street clothes, practice yoga, take classes, and cook meals for themselves.
"It doesn't look like any prison that I've ever seen in the United States," says 60 Minutes producer Marc Lieberman. "I've been on a Google campus for other stories, and frankly, it reminded me very much of it.
Lieberman visited Heidering -- along with correspondent Bill Whitaker and associate producer Michael Kaplan -- to report on a tour of German prisons by a group of American prison supervisors and politicians learning about the philosophy of incarceration in Germany. The basic level of comfort and normalcy with which German inmates serve out their prison sentences sparked debate about whether the practices could work in American-style penitentiaries.
"The inmates have privacy, and the facilities are beautiful. It was mind-shifting."
"We had gone to a Pennsylvania prison prior to going to Germany," says Lieberman, "and it just felt depressing. You go to Heidering, and it's open and there's space, and the inmates have privacy, and the facilities are beautiful. It was mind-shifting."
Lieberman saw immaculate sports facilities at Heidering that included three AstroTurf soccer fields, an indoor basketball court where yoga classes are held, and a pristine running track. "All the facilities were just really perfect," said Lieberman.
The role of women in German prisons was also a striking difference for the American visitors. The 60 Minutes team observed women working in various roles at male prisons-- as guards, teachers, counselors, and wardens.
"In the real world, women are as much in the population as men, so they feel that it's very important for male inmates to interact with women," says Lieberman. "When they do get out, it won't be as much of a shock. It's sort of trying to maintain that normalcy -- they call it normalization."
Some American prison officials who spoke to the 60 Minutes team said they're beginning to try ideas from the German model in some prisons systems in the United States to see if they'll take root.
But can the United States embrace a philosophy of imprisonment based on rehabilitation rather than punishment?
"Punishment doesn't even come into the equation in Germany. They think that losing your freedom, being locked away from the outside world is punishment enough," says Whitaker. "And then they work at getting you back to your family, back to your town, back into society."
Photo of Heidering prison's circular mural courtesy of Johannes Seyerlein