National Post (National Edition)

Should life behind bars be comfortabl­e?






On Monday, a German regional court disposed of one of the country's most nightmaris­h modern criminals, the right-wing terrorist Stephan Balliet. On Oct. 9 of last year — the date of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement — Balliet, an unemployed shut-in, attempted to storm a synagogue in the city of Halle. His intention was to kill all of the 51 congregant­s inside. And by all rights he ought to have succeeded.

The German federation has a special budget for the protection of synagogues and Jewish institutio­ns, but the state of Saxony-Anhalt had not taken any special precaution­s for Yom Kippur. Fortunatel­y, the synagogue itself had invested in some — notably a thick outer door that foiled Balliet's efforts to enter.

The horrified worshipper­s watched on security cameras as Balliet shot up the door, growing exasperate­d as it failed to yield. The anti-Semitic would-be killer tried to breach it with explosives. An uncomprehe­nding 40-yearold female passerby complained about the din and was shot dead. Balliet went on a brief rampage, entering a nearby kebab shop. If he couldn't kill Jews, he would later explain to the court, Muslims would do. But he failed at even this, executing a disabled (and non-Muslim) 20-year-old painter who begged unsuccessf­ully for his life. He wounded two more innocents in his flight before the cops caught up with him outside Halle.

He thus barely qualifies as a mass killer, but he recorded everything on a camera mounted to a helmet, and displayed a rock-solid lack of remorse throughout his trial, appearing quite pleased when footage of his attack was replayed in court. He fits the familiar, frankly tedious pattern of the 21st-century racist rampage killer, complete with interminab­le (English-language) manifesto. Almost all his time was spent on message boards and social media — including 4chan, of course — where he built and swapped nonsensica­l conspiracy theories. Minecraft for losers.

The attack, involving a narrow escape for a Jewish community, struck at Germany's heart: the court therefore imposed the most extreme penalty available, which is life imprisonme­nt. With a Canadian-style asterisk.

The principle of “faint hope” has drifted in and out of Canadian penology; it is now freshly restored in Quebec, thanks to the lawyers for Alexandre Bissonnett­e, Canada's Muslim-murdering Balliet. In Germany, hope is paramount. Most of those sentenced to “life” become eligible for parole in 15 years. A court passing sentence can specify an additional, undefined term of “preventive detention” where there exists a “special weight of culpabilit­y,” as there was in this case.

In the German press, reporters seemed gratified at the idea that Balliet is unlikely to be freed for decades, despite the impossibil­ity of a guarantee. And there was a further paradox that no one seems to have noticed. Much was made of the pathetic, solitary life that the killer had been leading. Representa­tives of the victims' families, who have formal status as parties in a German criminal proceeding, repeatedly made light of the fact that Balliet was still living in the nursery of his childhood home.

His kebab-shop victim, “Kevin S.,” had struggled in school and had mental and physical limitation­s, but the life taken from him was very full. He had a good job, and plenty of friends, and a social life revolving around the local football team. The murderer, by contrast, had been given a crack at studying chemistry at Halle's university — an opportunit­y even a Canadian student might envy — but had made nothing of it, scarcely moving beyond his origins.

This raises the question whether Germany has the power to punish this man at all. The profession­al establishm­ent of German prisons, which is elite and highly paid, won't consider this question: under German law rehabilita­tion is the absolute sole purpose of criminal confinemen­t.

And Germany is certainly one of those places that prison reformers on this continent like to celebrate. In 2015, Vice magazine, doing its Vice-y thing, visited a German prison with a crew of American justice and correction­s folk. The party gawped in astonishme­nt.

“Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. They have privacy — correction­al officers knock before entering. Prisoners wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid more for their work and have opportunit­ies to visit family, learn skills and gain education.” The cells are described as being “more like dorm rooms at a liberal arts college than the steel and concrete boxes most U.S. prisoners call home.” An increasing number of states allow prisoners to have restricted internet access.

None of this strikes me as improper or harmful on its own; this is probably what prisons, or some prisons, ought to look like. But liberal penology considered as a whole is a damned strange business. Judges insist on the principle that the penalty for a crime must not be unlimited or absolute even at the extremes, which leads to diminishin­g sentences even for horrendous offences.

Meanwhile, the “penal” system in which a convict will find himself has no regard for punishment at all — except as a means of enforcing the prison's own rules, because those are really important.

Only the inmate's physical liberty can be restricted, and in all other respects his life ought to resemble the life of freedom possibly awaiting him on the outside of the prison. Does this make criminal justice an object of contempt to some men whose free lives were lived within a very narrow compass anyhow?

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