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Prison et religion

Legal aspect

Religion and the state are separated in Germany. This separation works both at the individual (Art. 4, Sec. 1 and 2 GG) and the collective level (Art. 137 WRV).

The constitutional framework also applies in prison and for inmates. Generally speaking, each inmate can choose either to believe in and practise a religion, or not. Religious organisations can also offer services. This can be dubbed as the freedom for religon, and freedom of religion. The only possible limits to religious freedom are the possible conflict with other basic rights or institutional borders. Order and security are the main reasons for limiting religious freedom in prison. Therefore, the institutional specificities and functions of prisons regulate religious practices and religious freedom, more than the general legal framework.

Protestant and Catholic churches are partners of the state, while other religious organisations must abide by the historically given Christian theological concepts like chaplaincy. Of late, there have been public as well as political debates on the possibility to integrate Islam into German public law and German public institutions. Some German federal states have contracts with Muslim organisations for chaplaincy.

Sociological Perspective

Getting valid statistics on the religious affiliation of inmates is nearly impossible, because the freedom of religion and belief (Art. 4 GG) and the right to personal data protection allow inmates not to declare their religious affiliations. Therefore, valid numbers of religious affiliations do not exist for Germany. Some studies observe the affiliations in certain prisons. The results suggest that the numbers are the same in prison as outside : an important number of non affiliated, and the largest religious groups are Protestants, Catholics and Muslims. The the importance of these different religious groups may vary by region.

A variety of religious organisations intervene in German prisons : prison chaplains in the Federal Republic of Germany can be employees, civil servants, or volunteers. Employed chaplains and chaplains with the status of a civil servant are common these days, but depend on who actually employs them. In Germany, each prison has a Protestant and a Catholic chaplain ; they are appointed by each federal Ministry of justice in agreement with the regional diocese (Catholic) and regional church (Protestant). The closed contract is based on the concordat or on contracts between the Holy See or regional church offices and the respective federal state. The regulations are based on each federal legal and political framework. In most cases, chaplains are employees of the federal state ; however, in some cases they are employed by their church, either because some chaplains do not want to be a state employee, or because some are too old (there is an age limit to become a civil servant in Germany).

Most Muslim organisations have not yet been included in the partnership between religions and the state. Owing to many Muslim organisations not having public recognition, it is not yet possible to offer Muslim inmates a religious and social support similar to the one received by Christian inmates. However, for some years now, there are more comprehensive approaches to establish a Muslim-made Islamic chaplaincy at local and federal levels.

There are other religious organisations which do not yet have an institutional status.

The possibility to practise religion in the prison depends on the status of the relevant religious organisation. Only a few inmates use the existing religious offer, or practice religion. In general, there is a distinction between individual religious practices, for which there exist different rituals, and collective practices like religious services. Individual practices are mostly single case decisions taken by the prison staff, while the collective ones must be decided at a higher level because more organisation is needed. Both types have in common that for certain practices, the decisions taken are clear and observed in all prisons, whereas for other practices the decisions are inconsistent.

Clear decisions are usually made when there is an institutionalised offer like for halal food for Muslims. Every prison in Germany has been offering this in recent years. Inmates have to register for it, much like those who have diabetes or need special food with medical indications. There is no problem because the prison infrastructure can serve different types of food for many people. The Muslim religious feast for the month of Ramadan, however, requests a slightly different organisation than for providing halal food served every day. When inmates want to practise Ramadan, the institution arranges for it.

Collective religious practices are religious services held by Catholic and Protestant chaplains, Bible groups led by chaplains or by volunteers from other Christian denominations, and Friday prayers led by an imam. The way a collective religious practice works is a good indicator of the acceptance of a religion, not at a legal level, but at a social level. Indeed, Christian chaplains are not accepted in every prison and they often face problems when trying to organise a regular worship service. Sometimes, an Evangelical group without any public contract can be better accepted. Additionally, Jehovah’s Witnesses are recognised at a legal level, but they do not get the permission to offer collective practices in prison. In contrast to this, Islamic organisations do not in most cases have legal recognition, but in some prisons they can offer Friday prayers.

Main or recent publications
- Becci, I. 2012. Imprisoned religion. Transformations of religion during and after imprisonment in Eastern Germany. Farnham : Ashgate.
- Harms-Dalibon, L. 2017. Surveillance and prayer – comparing Muslim prison chaplaincy in Germany’s federal states. Comparative Migration Studies 8:1–22. doi : 10.1186/s40878-017-0051-5.
- Jahn, S. J. 2015b. Institutional logic and legal practice : Modes of regulation of religious organizations in German prisons. In : Religious Diversity in European Prisons, ed. by Olivier Roy and Irene Becci, 81–99. Springer : Cham. doi : 10.1007/978-3-319-16778-7_6.
- Jahn, S. J. 2016. Being Private in Public Space ? The ‘Administration’ of ‘Religion’ in German Prisons. Journal of Religion in Europe 4:402–422. doi : 10.1163/18748929-00904005.
- Jahn, S. J. 2020. Germany : Inequality in Legal Practice : Managing Religion in German Prisons, in : Religion and Prison in Europe. A Contemporary Overview, ed. by Julia Martínez-Ariño and Anne-Laure Zwilling, 193–217. Springer : Cham. doi : 10.1007/978-3-030-36834-0_13.
- Ucar, Bülent, u. a. (Hrsg), 2013. Islamische Seelsorge zwischen Herkunft und Zukunft, Von der theologischen Grundlegung zur Praxis in Deutschland, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, Frankfurt a. M.
- Weiß, Helmut (Hrsg.), 2005. Ethik und Praxis des Helfens in verschiedenen Weltreligionen : Anregungen zum interreligiösen Gespräch in Seelsorge und Beratung, Neukirchen-Vluyn : Neukirchener.
- Wenz, Geor, Kamran, Talat (Hrsg.), 2012. Seelsorge und Islam in Deutschland, Herausforderungen, Entwicklungen und ChancenVerlagshaus Speyer.

D 23 juin 2021    ASarah Jadwiga Jahn

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