Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons 402 recap: Germany: The Therapy Prison

Netflix’s Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons: Germany: The Therapy Prison

The season 4 premiere of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons looked at the Tacumbú prison in Paraguay, one of the most violent ones on earth.  In season 3, the Netflix series had looked at Norway’s Halden prison, perhaps the most humane prison out there. In episode 402, it’s almost like host Raphael Rowe has found somewhere close to Halden, but still not lightyears away from brutal prison life.

Rowe arrives as Schwalmstadt Prison in a sleek-looking transport van, and the place immediately strikes him like a fortress, with razor-wire fences and even a moat. Rowe also faces the usual strip search, which he assures us makes any recipient feel like an animal. However, somewhat like Halden, Schwalmstadt has some things going for it, such as not being overcrowded and the availability of in-depth therapy. In other words, the place isn’t solely about punishment, but it at least tries to rehabilitate people.

Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons: The prisoner has the key?

There are only 10 people on Rowe’s assigned wing of the prison and, interestingly, he is given the key to his own cell. The idea is that he is trusted with the responsibility of whether he wishes to freely roam through his prison wing. Rowe does share his cell, though, with inmates Dominic and Sacha.

Rather than immediately being in conflict with them, they end up making spaghetti bolognese, and Raphael finds it to be quality food. Dominic has been in prison for 11 years for murder, and Sacha is there for at least 4 years over drug trafficking and assault charges. Dominic maintains that the murder was unplanned, as he lost his temper and stabbed someone in a fight.

Day 2

As any hardworking prisoner should, Raphael gets up at 6 am to work. He works with an introverted man named Dirk, who has been at Schwalmstadt prison for 5 years and barely communicates with his fellow prisoners. Dirk is a 26-year-old man with a history of amphetamine addiction, who is serving a 10-year sentence for manslaughter. Dirk doesn’t use his outside privileges out of social anxiety, but Rowe persuades him to enter the prison yard.

The hot seat

Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons takes us into one of the prison’s therapy sessions, where therapists Gina and Michael put Sacha in what is called “the hot seat.” He reveals the details of his violent incident, which involved breaking someone’s jaw in front of his wife and kids at a public pool.

Sacha says he would apologize to his victims now, but Rowe suspects that he’s doing therapy mostly to reduce his sentence. In any case, people in the prison seem to feel that group sessions are better than 1-on-1 meetings with a social worker.

Down at the shop / Luxuries

Like some of the other, better prisons showcased on Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, Schwalmstadt Prison encourages prisoners to take up a trade, which supposedly can translate into work once a sentence has been served. Ironically, Rowe finds out their metalwork is to construct a door for the prison. He meets Wolfgang, who is in prison for a minimum of 13 years for shooting his ex-wife, who he insists was physically abusive. He has at least 6 more years to his sentence.

Raphael also finds the prisoners have some leisure activities, including football (what we Americans call “soccer”). Though some would criticize the prison for allowing TVs and PlayStations, a Guard named Sven defends them as an element of dignity and respect, as opposed to constant punishment. Though some inmates still can make weapons, inmates are more likely to get in trouble for smuggling in cellphones (an inmate named Dennis gets punished for doing that in order to talk to his family).

More therapy, and more about Dirk

In Schwalmstadt, some Guards even hold therapy sessions. We see another session where prisoners are tested to see if they can keep cool when someone refuses to give up a seat. We also learn more about Dirk, who grew up in a foster home and is now in prison for the third time for stealing and murder. He admits that he and his friends beat someone to death over what he admits is a trivial matter.


Of all the inmates at Schwalmstadt, Spencer is one of the ones considered “beyond help.” So, of course, Raphael Rowe has to meet him! Although Spencer seems nice enough at first, he has had his sentence extended three times. He has also had his teeth knocked out (though he does have dentures now). Though he has a violent history, it seems part of his violence stems from his experiences in the prison when it belonged to the “German Democratic Republic.”

Spencer mentions being tortured in the Bautzen prison water cell, where he was forced to stay in a room full of water up to near his nose. Obviously, the GDR prison had no therapy like its new owners do. He says he doesn’t think he’ll be a free man. By the time Rowe is freed from this prison, it seems we have experienced an environment that’s not quite as humane as Halden, yet still more promising than a dungeon-like Tacumbú.

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