Statement of Being is a project by photographer Julia Schönstädt. Julia has photographed and interviewed several prisoners in institutions across Germany, her aim being “to dispel the stigma of the ‘criminal’ and simply make the subject human.” We will feature one pair of portrait+interview [the interview is actually an excerpt of a longer conversation] every day for six days. Are you ready to listen?
Volkert – 13 years
When you hear that you are supposed to spend 13 years inside prison,
you get to the point where you wonder if it’s really worth continuing living.
Did you have therapy in prison?
Yes, I have done therapy – so called self-therapy – because in prisons there isn’t done much, or too little. On top of this, there isn’t much trust in the people working in the prison services. It is extremely important that during the time inside you self-reflect on everything that has led you to being there. Society is not to blame, neither are the judges, the police or the prosecution. When you get to the stage where you realise that you, yourself, are responsible for ending up behind bars, this is a big step forward and you can begin to work on yourself. For me it’s actually a constant therapy, even today still, because I am surrounded by young people who commit crimes all the time, and I try to bring them onto a better path.
How did the imprisonment impact you?
I became a different person through being imprisoned. I am a very serious person; there has been an extreme loss of happiness and lightness because of the incarceration. But I can cope with this quite well. In fact, in many ways it has made me stronger and I would go as far as to say it has saved me. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t been incarcerated. Maybe I would be dead, given the business I was in, or on a life sentence or whatever.
Although I did view it as a punishment, I also took it as a chance to make changes in my life. I really got on it. I really worked a lot, I really studied a lot… among other things, I did a long-distance learning program, I got involved in civic group organizations, I initiated this project GhJ [Gefangene helfen Jugendlichen (“Prisoners Help Teens’)], I was an inmate representative, I was active in raising awareness for prisoners’ rights, and many more things. This all led to me not having to serve my full 13 year sentence that I previously mentioned, but 8 years, as I was released on good-behavior.
Can you describe your time behind bars a little bit?
We once did a little video about our work here and in that video I say that it was lost time. But in fact that’s not quite right to say it like that. It wasn’t just lost time, as I already mentioned earlier, but it was also a chance to change your life completely. When you hear that you are supposed to spend 13 years inside prison, you get to the point where you wonder if it’s really worth continuing to live, if you set an end to it. Or you can look a bit more positively into the future and look around and see if you can find something positive in your day-to-day experience of prison life and get something out of it. Of course there aren’t many positives but the little that there were, I really grasped. But of course being incarcerated was extremely draining for the mental psyche over all those years. It is a continuous battle with yourself to get through one day to the next and to healthily survive all those years. It is a really tough journey.
Can you remember your first night in prison?
I can remember it very clearly. It was in Panama, in South America. That’s where I was arrested through Interpol. The first night I spent on a 8 sqm cell with another 10 people on the bare floor, bitten by countless mosquitos in 45 degrees. That was my first night. And just shortly before I was about to fall asleep I wasn’t sure if I’d be still alive the next morning, being the only white person amongst 10 latinos that had gone out and finished someone off for the sake of 20 dollars. It was really extreme what came down on you. I mean, it was a really extreme situation.