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.
Oliver – Life Sentence
I don’t know if I can ever take that weight off me.
No, I don’t think so. It is a part of my life.
I’m Oliver, I’m 43 years old, and I’ve been in prison since 1995. In 14 days, it’ll have been 18 years, and presumably I have one more year ahead of me. I grew up in a deprived area here in Hamburg – St. Pauli. Because of that, I got involved with crime quite early. My family had various businesses in St. Pauli. I actually come from a good family background but my family also has a tendency towards criminal behavior. And because I was the first grandchild, I was their the little prince.
I became violent very early on. First there were money-related crimes starting at 7 or 8 years old. Violence came a bit later, but when I was 7 or 8 years old I stole and so on. Unfortunately it wasn’t until I was 22 that I was held responsible for the first time. I completed my A levels, I went to school for 10 years, I did an apprenticeship afterwards and became independent quite quickly. At some point everything got out of hand with this partner that I had. That’s when the violence got extreme. I shot at people. And in doing so, one person died and one now sits in a wheelchair. ”
Serving such a long sentence, have you gotten to a point where you’ve stopped blaming yourself? Does it ever stop?
Well, blaming… of course you blame yourself. You think a lot about why certain things happened the way they did. The first few years in prison, I was exactly the same way I was before I got arrested. I came to the infamous Santa Fu, and I don’t want to say it was a lawless place, but we were about 600 inmates at the time and the possibility to engage in violent behavior was always there. You could also keep doing your dodgy business if you weren’t caught, which unfortunately didn’t happen at the time either.
It really struck me that something wasn’t right with me or with my story when a great deal of my family passed away – my grandfather, my grandmother, my father… I was married then, my wife divorced me. She stayed with me for 5 years but then she got to a point where she couldn’t take it anymore. And all that lead me to think “something isn’t quite right here.” Then I went to see a psychiatrist and got even more reasons to think about everything.
I had relatively little empathy for people, that’s just the way I grew up. I was raised in a violent environment. But that doesn’t mean that I was consciously punished by being beaten, more in a way you would also train a pitbull.
I didn’t feel like there was something that wasn’t okay. I experienced my childhood as something really nice. Only through a person from the outside, I realised that it wasn’t all that normal, the way I grew up. And through realising that, I was able to reflect much better.
What goes through your mind when you are locked in for 24 hours a day?
I slept. Apart from that, the only thing that happened was that my aggression and my anger constantly increased. I boxed against the wall with my fists until they were bleeding. Then I slept again for a bit… yeah, that was about it. So it all just built up my aggression and anger. And my coldness. And the first years inside that’s how it continued. It’s that every person needs different things for their heads to start working at all. You need to work with a person in the way they function.
Have you found peace with yourself?
Difficult. Is that possible? After everything? I mean, I’ve only been punished for two things in my life. One time for concealing stolen goods for which I got a fine that I didn’t even pay, and now this. But I did so much more, especially in my youth. Unfortunately I was never held responsible. Even though I hurt many people, whether physically or through stealing. But I hurt people and I don’t know if I can ever take that weight off me. No, I don’t think so. It is a part of my life. It might sound quite hard now but it has also made me who I am today. But today I handle things so differently, I’m much more critical. But I don’t think that I can ever lift that rock off my shoulders. That is a debt that cannot be cleared.