Jailhouse Chic Investors Remake Germany's Disused Prisons

As inmate numbers in Germany steadily decline, some states are selling off unneeded correctional facilities to private investors. The result is a new brand of high-end apartments, hotels and event centers housed in renovated former prisons.
Von Stephan Degenhardt
Elwe, a former prison in the German city of Kassel, recently hosted a basketball tournament.

Elwe, a former prison in the German city of Kassel, recently hosted a basketball tournament.

Foto: Ulf Schaumloeffel

Thomas Richter-Mendau, a 45-year-old private investor, recently gave a tour through the site of his latest high-end real estate project: a former prison in the northeastern German town of Stendal. He stood in the middle of the corridor, clutching his blueprints and kicking a bit of debris out of the way. "There, those two cells will be a bedroom," he said, pointing at two eight-square-meter (90-square-foot) recesses. He turned slightly to the left. "Those two will be made into a children's bedroom." Another turn. "Back there, we'll tear out the walls and put in a sliding door, make a big open-plan kitchen. Seems clear, right?"

Richter-Mendau continued through the former penitentiary. The tiled containment room for prisoners on suicide watch? That will become a living room with space for a big couch. The massive oak doors, numbered 1 to 98, that lean against the walls? "We'll put them in front of the new apartments. As a warning to people to behave!"

The saws that cut through the brickwork, over 100 years old, beneath the cell windows, reveals a view of nearby Stendal Cathedral. "With that view, I'd move in here right away," Richter-Mendau enthused.

Prospects are looking similarly good in many such former prisons. In cities across Germany, investors are converting disused jails into apartments, hotels or event centers. Just a few years ago, many German prisons were overcrowded, but now prisoner numbers are declining. About 79,000 people were serving sentences or detention 10 years ago, but last year that number was barely 66,000. Many of Germany's federal states are taking advantage of this decline to consolidate their inmates into a few large prisons.

That means the end for small facilities such as this one in Stendal. By the point the facility closed in 2010, only around 50 criminals were serving sentences there. In the last five years, Saxony-Anhalt has reduced its number of prisons by five, Berlin also by five, Baden-Württemberg by three, Hesse by one and Lower Saxony by a total of 11. In Saarland, two prisons closed their doors in 2011.

Challenges of Renovation

Most of the facilities being closed are located in rural areas. Many were built during the time of the German Empire and are both listed for historical preservation and in a fairly dilapidated state. Renovating them is expensive, which is where private investors such as Richter-Mendau come in. The businessman and his wife bought the Stendal prison, paying the state of Saxony-Anhalt €37,000 ($50,000) for this historical building of approximately 3,500 square meters. The plan is to convert the cells into 28 apartments, each 40 to 90 square meters in size. Richter-Mendau plans to invest over €2 million in the project.

Unlike Richter-Mendau, the new owners of a former prison in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, want to keep a bit of the jailhouse look. Two local businessmen are converting this former jail in the town of Offenburg into a hotel. "Rather than orienting ourselves toward the traditional hotel standard, we want to preserve the prison structure," says architect Jürgen Grossmann. The doors to the hotel's 50 rooms will be barely 1.7 meters (5 feet 7 inches) high, forcing guests to adopt a humiliating posture when entering or leaving a room -- just as prisoners would have to do. The two businessmen have invested €5 million into these two red sandstone cellblocks, which were built starting in the mid-19th century, and plan to open their doors to their first hotel guests in 2015.

An old prison in the city of Kassel has already been used as a hotel -- last year, during Documenta, a high-profile international art exhibition.

One of the building's new owners is the lawyer Christopher Posch. Known for his role on a German TV program called "Ich kämpfe für Ihr Recht" ("I fight for your rights"), Posch came here often when the building was still a prison, to meet with his clients. Now, he points to a green-and-white exit sign. "First we had to label emergency exit routes," says the 37-year-old attorney. "Naturally, that wasn't necessary when this was a prison."

From Prison to Artist Hangout

Posch and his business partner changed almost nothing in the building's approximately 90 cells. Each contains a bed, a chair, a stool, a sink and a toilet in the middle of the room. They did change the locks on the doors, so they could be opened from the inside, and some cells got a new coat of paint from artists who stayed here during Documenta. By the end of the 100-day exhibition, Posch counted nearly 10,000 overnight stays.

The building, called "Elwe" -- the local dialect word for 11, the former prison's street number -- has become a desirable event location as well, and has hosted a tattoo show and a basketball tournament, as well as a celebration of Holi, a Hindu festival in which participants shower each other with colorful powder.

But not all attempts to repurpose former prisons have been as successful. A student union in Frankfurt am Main wanted to turn a former deportation center in nearby Offenbach into a student dorm, but pulled out of the project when costs rose to €1.3 million. And in the city of St. Ingbert, Saarland, the mayor wanted to move the city's music school into a former prison building, built in 1882, in the city center. But the city council was unwilling to approve the €260,000 necessary to purchase the building and the nearly €1 million necessary to renovate it.

These high renovation costs mean that small cities in particular are often forced to rely on private investors, and the interests of city governments and investors don't always align. This is the case in Eisleben, a city in Saxony-Anhalt that is both the birthplace and place of death of Martin Luther. The city government envisions converting its former women's prison, closed in 2009, into an inexpensive hotel for pilgrims. The building's current owner, however, has other possibilities in mind, and is currently in talks with various parties interested in repurposing the prison -- among them, the operator of an S&M club.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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