In a tiny village in Lower Austria lies one of the country's "special institutions for mentally abnormal, unsound offenders".
– A series of articles: Behind bars in Austria (2/3)
Sarah Yolanda Koss is an independent journalist based in Vienna. In the past year, she conducted an extensive investigation on the impacts of COVID-19 in Austrian penitentiary facilities, funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Sarah shared with Prison Insider three perspectives on prison life and its aftermaths. Read the second one.
“Being imprisoned does something to you"
ON A BEAUTIFUL SUMMER DAY, I arrive in Göllersdorf, a tiny, peaceful village somewhere in Lower Austria hosting a little under 1,500 inhabitants. The sun is beaming from a blue sky and the hills surrounding the village are of a fresh green. There are no people in sight as I leave the train station, which is merely a single platform in the middle of fields. Only an elderly man arrives in his car to get the Heute (“Today”), Austria’s free-of-charge tabloid, from a newspaper rack. On my way through the village, a woman in a summer skirt drives by me on a bike – she stares while passes me, apparently wondering what I am doing here.
In the middle of pastel-coloured cottages on the town’s main square there is a stone-gate, through which a path leads to the Göllersdorfer castle – a renaissance building from the 16th century. Since the 1970s, this castle houses a penitentiary institution for so-called “mentally abnormal, unsound offenders”.
After being buzzed through two doors and let in another room through a metal detector, I meet Jonas Mayer1. He is a big man, who talks a mixture of dialect and standard German. He has been imprisoned for 13 years. It has been one and a half years since he got transferred to a so-called special institution and it has now been four months since he arrived in Göllersdorf. He has been diagnosed as unsound after over a decade of doing prison time. “Being imprisoned does something to you”, he mumbles as I ask about his transfer. He calls the institution “final destination Göllersdorf”, as he does not believe he will ever get out of the castle again. This has to do with the way facilities like Göllersdorf work.
Austria has five special institutions managed under paragraphs 21/1 and 21/2 of the Austrian penitentiary law. Göllersdorf runs under paragraph 21/1, which concerns people who have been certified criminally irresponsible and can therefore not be found guilty. Being held in such institutions is therefore not presented as a punishment, but as a preventive measure. Many aspects differentiate these institutions from classic prison facilities, in particular offering more freedom to their population. However, there is a big catch: as people in Göllersdorf are not officially undergoing legal punishment, they do not fall under any specific sentence nor pre-set time-frame. Instead, their case gets newly assessed every year. The decision on their fate lies in the hands of psychiatrists, who decide if a person is still posing a threat to society. The number of psychologically ill and irresponsible people deprived of liberty because of minor offences has risen drastically over the last years.
In December 2021, 16.27% of the imprisoned in Austria were “housed” in special institutions. This is why Mayer does not believe in his release anymore. Austria has been repeatedly criticised by international boards for the way paragraph 21 is being executed. In 2015, it has been partly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.
As a response to such criticism, special institutions strive to present themselves as something completely different from standard prisons, starting with terminology. People held in Göllersdorf are not called prisoners, they are called “housed”. Wards are “stations”, cells are “rooms”. But Mayer does not care for those metaphors: “The room I am sleeping in is a cell, it does not matter if the door is locked or not”, he says. Other aspects of being “housed” seem to make more of a difference. Mayer does not have to work like prisoners in Austria normally do. He would anyways not be able to work even if laws were different – getting up in the morning is hard for him because of all the medication, he says. Watching TV in the smoker’s lounge does not interest him either. He spends most of his time in his room, composing Rap music. As we speak, he has been waiting for three weeks to get admitted to therapy: “I am used to this waiting-around-situation from prison. But here, everything takes even longer. Even, if Ms. Seichter does her best”.
Today, a perspex wall divides the entrance hall. Relatives are only allowed to talk to each other through a disc.
Daniela Seichter, a determined woman who moves through Göllersdorf at a fast pace, is the head warden since 2020. A lot has changed because of the pandemic, she says as she sits in her renaissance style office, vast enough to largely respect COVID-19 distancing rules. In earlier years, families could visit their relations in Göllersdorf without any problem, even outdoors, as long as the weather was nice. Today, a perspex wall divides the entrance hall. Relatives are only allowed to talk to each other through a disc. It impacts relationships when you cannot touch each other any longer, Seichter says. She talks about the ward holding cognitively impaired people in Göllersdorf. They still do not understand why the staff of the institution does not shake their hands anymore to greet them.
The biggest problem since the virus appeared has however been the suspension of social training.
Normally, when a “housed” person is in a re-socialisation phase, they spend a few first days outside, accompanied by a warden and a caregiver. They are then transferred to a post-care centre, where they stay overnight a couple of times until the centre allows them to stay long-term. Since the social training program had been suspended, new ways to lead people back into freedom and keep the flow of entries and exits had to be found. When Göllersdorf exceeds its capacity, “housed” people now get brought to standard prisons, which provide even fewer psychological or medical treatment. Head warden Seichter struggled with this decision and negotiated a solution with local Courts: a measure called “constant interruption of housing”. This measure allows for people to move into post-care-centres without the formerly mandatory timespan of re-socialisation. Re-socialisation measures were skipped but overcrowding was avoided.
After almost 50 years of deadlock, the Austrian Minister of Justice Alma Zadić has announced the reform of special institutions, with a focus on overcrowding. Under the new law, it is planned that people can be transferred to a special institution only if they have committed a crime punished with over three years of imprisonment – except for high risk-offenders. Teenagers and young adults can only be committed in cases of capital offences, as offences such as fighting and scuffles are not supposed to lead to a transfer anymore. The new law also includes more therapeutic infrastructures, better-equipped post-care facilities as well as enhanced legal protection for “housed” people. Also, the dated terminology is supposed to change, detainees will not be called “mentally abnormal” anymore.
At this point, the date for implementation is still unclear. Details were supposed to be decided in Autumn of 2021, but nothing happened. The Ministry of Justice declares it cannot estimate when they will to be able to get to the matter, even though it is still “a high priority”, as a spokesperson of the Ministry reassures – a statement that has been said many times before. This stance has been met with criticism from the Austrian Ombudsman Board as well as the Austrian chamber of Labour, who have voiced their doubts in Spring 2021.
For Mayer, the reform would make sense, even it came late. As he does not know when and if he will leave the castle, he would profit from more therapy, rooms or maybe one day – if he is lucky and depending on his psychological assessment – benefit from measures of re-socialisation.Until then, he tries to grasp every straw he can.
As the majority of the population of the institution suffers from somatic and psychological illnesses, they are defined as a high-risk group and Göllersdorf was the first Austrian jurisdictional facility to obtain COVID-19 vaccination.
Mayer immediately seized his opportunity. As soon as visitations will be reopened, he hopes that vaccination will give him higher chances of meeting his son again, whom he has not hugged in months.
As I leave Göllersdorfer-castle, Mayer and the others stay behind. The sky is still blue, the cottages are still pastel-coloured, I am still the only person at the train station. The surrounding feels even more out of touch from reality now. Like leaving a haunted house in the middle of Disney World.