Interview with Brigadier Gottfried Neuberger, Director of the Schwarzau Prison

Why do you have a co-ed theater group at Schwarzau?

The world is made up of men and women, while in prison the sexes are strictly segregated. Coeducational projects serve to produce a bit of normality. For the young men from Gerasdorf, especially, it is also very important pedagogically that they learn to work with women on an equal basis rather than just trying to chat them up. The theater group also corrects the public image of inmates in that one sees: these are entirely normal people. That helps to prepare an atmosphere that will ease the prisoners’ re-entry into society.

What are the difficulties with this sort of project?

Prisons are built to lock people in. To explain to the staff members: we are going to open up a bit now, despite being a prison, stirs mistrust in some at first, as they have had the experience that everything that comes from outside is criticism. Then strangers come and do theater here, what do we need that for? For some it took a while to work against the paranoia hype. And some do not want to even see what impact might be possible here.

How do you respond to the critique of the penal system, that prisons don’t serve to reform, but instead, first and foremost, to nurture criminality?

It is certainly not that severe. One has to keep in mind the prisoner subculture and set up the prison in such a way that people do not forget how to shape their own lives. With the exception of youths and the mentally ill, most of the inmates led a normal, independent life before prison. Criminals are not criminal 24/7. These are normal people who for various reasons committed a crime. Naturally, with longer sentences especially, there is the danger that social competences remain dormant for too long. It is our job, especially in the final two years before release, to make sure that the women relearn them. And with regard to the term “reform”: that’s a philosophical question. Am I a better person simply because I did not steal a Mercedes? I don’t know about that. If the prison has a moral sanction, then that is to make an effort to offer people help so that they can deal with society better afterward. In many cases that happens successfully, but not all. Responsible for the success here is, in part, the prison, and in part, the prisoner, but a major role is played by the society that the prisoner enters when they are released. Are there people and institutions that support them, help them in the labor market? The critical phase here is mainly the six to twelve months after release. If these are managed, then the probability of recidivism is slight.

What are the differences between the prisons in Gerasdorf and in Schwarzau?

For the male juveniles in Gerasdorf it takes a long time for them to develop trust, open up, until they believe you and want to have conversation. It is a great deal of work to even get to the point where it is possible to be effective. With the women this work isn’t necessary. Women take the initiative in looking for conversation, confrontation. Here, the work involves being able to fulfill the need, to have time for this communication. Physical violence is a typical male problem. Women are more violent towards themselves, slip into depression, mental illness, dependencies, then into criminality. That means that in Gerasdorf one must invest a lot more into anti-violence training, and in Schwarzau, on the contrary, one needs more resources for therapeutic measures to strengthen the women’s self awareness. In both Gerasdorf and Schwarzau, a remarkably high percent of the inmates are victims of violence. More than eighty percent of the male juveniles and the women have experienced massive violence, and among the young men the estimated figure for unreported rapes is extremely high.

What are your ideas for improving the women’s penal system?

Key factors after release are work and employment opportunities. There is a huge deficit in terms of measures to allow inmates to earn qualifications during their prison terms. We need a lot more opportunities, especially low-level short training programs, after all, not all of the women are here for several years. There are far too few in the women’s prison. And then, it would be good to further expand the therapy options.

Do you see alternatives to locking people up?

Of the 9,000 inmates in Austria, there are probably 5,000 who don’t have to be locked up in prison. But you have to do something with them. Not intervening at all is also not possible. You can’t let a juvenile with a steady record of violent behavior to simply continue doing what he’s doing. At the lower level there are models: community work, diversion, “sweating instead of sitting.” But money is necessary to extend such alternative models to more severe crimes. And then there are the people who are truly dangerous. In science fiction films there are cultures without weapons, without violence. But unfortunately one never sees in the films how they got to the stage where that works.