A Prison Psychologist Explains How He Helps Murderers and Rapists

A Prison Psychologist Explains How He Helps Murderers and Rapists

"I have to like my patients; otherwise, it doesn't work."
April 26, 2017, 11:54am

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Uwe Kazenmaier meets his fair share of murderers, rapists, and violent criminals on a daily basis. Each has committed different crimes, but they all have one thing in common—German states considered their crimes dangerous enough to not only lock them away but to also have them undergo psychotherapy. And as a psychologist working at the Social Therapeutic Institution in a Berlin prison, Kazenmaier is their therapist.


The practice of giving violent offenders intensive psychological therapy has been employed in Germany since the early 1970s, and the idea is to prevent convicts from reoffending once they're released. It seems to work—offenders who've gone through social therapy are three times less likely than other ex-prisoners to commit another crime.

The building where Kazenmaier works is separate from the regular prison, but it's a prison all the same. But detainees assigned here can walk around the hallways freely—even at night—and their cells aren't locked. Although it's officially not allowed, prisoners can also visit one another. "It's interesting for the staff of the clinic to see how the patients behave, once we've drawn a clear line for them," Kazenmaier tells me while walking me through one of the corridors. "Does someone choose to step over that line or not?" His office is right next to his patient's cells. One step outside his office, and he's with them. That's where the interview below took place, too.

Mr. Kazenmaier at his desk. All photos by the author

VICE: Are you ever scared of your patients?
Uwe Kazenmaier: Most therapists would probably say that they don't fear their patients but respect them. But to be completely honest with you—of course we're scared. We wouldn't stand a chance against them. If you and I walked down the corridor now and five guys standing there wanted to beat us to death, no one would be able to help us. It wouldn't matter how quickly you sound the alarms, the guards wouldn't be fast enough. But I wouldn't be able to work here if I'd constantly have that fear on my mind.

Have you ever been in danger?
Well, I've felt threatened. A few years ago, the former manager of this institution was attacked with a pair of scissors, out here in the hallway. Officers have been attacked at times. But those really are exceptions. The people in here aren't crazy—they're criminals. In the end, they know what they have to lose.


Do violent criminals deserve therapy paid for by the state?
We don't do this for the criminals; we do it for society. Our aim isn't to make offenders happier; it's to make them less dangerous. Those two usually go hand in hand—but someone's difficult relationship with his mother is only relevant if it has an influence on how much someone is a danger to society.

How long do you need to turn a criminal into a good citizen through therapy?
Generally, the treatment here takes three years. In the beginning, people usually have a negative mentality—nobody likes psychologists. I would say that the first six months are spent getting to know one another. And from then on, we talk about the crime that landed them in here.

Is that difficult for offenders to talk about?
Often I first have to explain how they're responsible for their actions, make them aware of how dangerous they actually are. Many of them justify their actions with phrases like "I was provoked;" "It was only a warning slap;" "It was so busy in the metro station, and I just had to push him onto the tracks;" or my personal favorite: "I'm only here because someone ratted me out."

And then we deal with what was going on in their lives at the time they committed the crime. We try to find risk factors—outside influences like alcohol abuse or unemployment for example and also what went on in their personal lives. We then try to reconstruct their lives to the point that these factors are minimized.


How do you reach them if they don't think they need help?
Well, I often use people's own belief systems. With Muslims for example—a lot of people suddenly become religious when they get to prison—I use the Qur'an, which they often don't have much of a clue about. Together, we come to the conclusion that you can't just open a food car or buy your child a present with stolen money, because it is haram [forbidden by Islamic law.] It's not allowed. You'll see these top gangsters who might have a lot of money stored somewhere suddenly start to send the money they made in jail to their family.

I do the same with neo-Nazis—we talk about "German virtues" like discipline, hard work, and being on time. Then we go over their lives with a checklist: never worked, never cleaned the cell, always late. Those are conversation starters that get people to listen.

Are there people for whom therapy is pointless?
There are definitely people I'm not able to work with. Especially some of the ideologues—whether they're Nazis or radical Islamists. One says his actions were Jihad, and the other says he did it in order to save Germany from the foreigners. Pedophiles can be hard to reason with too—they try to make the argument that the law against sex with children is a social construct, and that it's completely different in other societies.

So how do you deal with that?
You have to be persistent—keep repeating that their sentence isn't about that. It's about the suffering they have caused, and it's about a child they've hurt. If someone claims that all they gave a victim was "just a slap," we look at pictures of the victim together—at the the cheekbone fractures or the hematomas.


How does it make you feel to sit opposite a murderer?
Of course I still find their actions horrible, but with time, I've learned to separate people from their actions as well as I can. I have to like my patients; otherwise, I can't work with them.

Really? You have to like them?
Yes. People can tell whether I'm actually interested in them or if I'm just pretending. That doesn't mean I give out my private phone number to patients but that I'm honest with them. If I want to be respected by someone, I have to show respect.

But how can you like a murderer or a rapist?
When I'm sitting in front of a man and go through his life's events, I often come to the point where he, as boy, experienced certain bad things. I might even feel sorry for him. That has nothing to do with finding excuses for the actions that landed him in prison —it's about understanding correlations. How did the kid who always got kicked by bullies at school become an adult that kicks other people? Somehow I'm able to see both—the man who committed those awful crimes and the boy I feel sorry for. In some rare cases, it doesn't work like that, and so I choose not to work with those guys.

Can you remember a case when that happened?
A few years ago, I was meant to work with a man who abused babies. I had just become a father and basically arrived in the office fresh out of the maternity ward. At that point, I said that I couldn't work with that man. But I was able to pick it up about six months later.

How do you go about it if someone you have released ends up relapsing?
It happens frequently, but I'm still very convinced about the value of my work. Firstly, because it's just great news when a former criminal doesn't produce any more victims. But also because it pays off. A re-offender costs society a lot of money. If I only prevent two people a year from doing any more harm, I've already saved society more than my annual salary. I've sent well over 100 people back into society, and many of them still call me up and tell me that they're happy to have met me.

Was there a particular case that gave you hope?
A few years ago, I treated a skinhead—a leader, very known in that scene. At first he couldn't stand our sessions, but pretty soon therapy really started to resonate with him. One day, a young neo-Nazi came in and started to show off in front of the older skinhead patient. He was bragging about beating up some other prisoner. My patient just looked at him and said: "You know, I used to be just like you when I was younger. I used to get punched in the face by my dad at home. Then I put on my boots and went out on the street, and I made other people cry my tears for me." I still get goosebumps thinking about it. He wasn't a particularly well-read man, but he just came up with that all by himself.

What is the most important thing you ever learned about violent offenders in your time as a prison therapist?
That they aren't so different from anyone else. Many of their actions are not so far removed from what either of us would do if we were put in similar situations. The question that has stayed with me all these years is: What makes me different from them? You never know how thin the ice you're walking on is. If I lose my job, cause a car accident on my way home, and then find a note from my wife on the kitchen table saying that she has taken the kids and all the furniture to her mother's—would I be able to handle that? How much can I really handle?