Former GDR-prison Cottbus now in "Prisoner's" Hands

The largest security-prison for men in the former German Democratic Republic/GDR is going to be converted into a memorial site

ISHR, May 4, 2011



Sylvia Waehling, member of the board of the ISHR-Germany and director of the 'Human Rights Center Cottbus e.V.'

As a late victory over the East German dictatorship the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) celebrates the peaceful takeover of the prison Cottbus by the 'Human Rights Center Cottbus e.V.'

Between 1972 until the reunification of Germany (1989) the ISHR supported around 200 prisoners which were detained in that prison. These were regime critics, civil rights activists, and those who only wanted to leave the GDR. Dieter Dombrowski, who is now a member of the Brandenburg parliament, and Siegmar Faust, a well-known writer and author, were detained there. An especially cruel punishment was the arrest in dark and cold cells or in the so-called "tiger cages".

The Cottbus prison was the "conventional" institution for all political prisoners in the GDR in the 1970ies. 80 percent of all detainees in Cottbus were political prisoners.

Prisoners had to work in three shifts for the 'VEB Pentacon Dresden'. They assembled the photo cameras which were sold by 'Quelle' (a large West German trading company) and produced articles for the 'VEB-Kunststoffwerk Spremberg' (a company selling plastic products). Most of the prisoners’ transports into West Germany (those prisoners who had been bought free from prison by the West-German government led through Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz). The prison at the 138 Bautzen Road comprised five main buildings enclosed behind a 5-meter-high wall.

The Cottbus prison has now been purchased by a group of former political prisoners of the GDR. The team decided to convert this prison into a memorial site. The purchase is partly funded also by earmarked federal funds. Managing director of the 'Human Rights Center Cottbus e.V.' is Ms Sylvia Waehling, member of the board of the ISHR-Germany. Several members of the ISHR also assist and cooperate in the project.


Excerpts of a report of a political prisoner in 1985:

The former GDR-security-prison for men in Cottbus is going to be converted into a memorial site by its new owner - the 'Human Rights Center Cottbus e.V.'
A punishment cell in the Cottbus prison of the GDR, a so-called "tiger cage"
One of the buildings of the the 'Penal Institution' STVE Cottbus

"At the outskirts of the district capital Cottbus is situated the 'Penal Institution' STVE Cottbus. The complex consists of two large building containing the prison cells, two factories, a building for managing the new incoming prisoners, a barrack for the prisoners' food intake, a small infirmary, and a separate prison section for the inspection of prisoners. Guard towers, a wall 5 meter high, barbed wire fences, signal wires, dog runs, prevent outbreaks of prisoners.

New arrivers come at first into the so-called "catacombs", these are cells in the basement of the cell buildings. They must stay there for their first 24 hours in Cottbus. To sleep they have bed frames, mattresses and blankets available. Everything is very dirty.

The following day the prisoner is "dressed". This takes place in the entrance building. A so-called 'Senior Master' of the guards (nicknamed 'Red Terror') prepares the prisoner for his stay in prison and applies all kinds of intimidations and threats. It is a rule that an inmate has to be beaten if an assignment has to be carried out by force.

The prisoners' clothes are made of worn army uniforms. The uniforms have yellow stripes on the sleeves, on its back and on the back of the trousers legs. Normally after 14 days the prisoners are assigned to the work, i.e. they are assigned to an education group (EB). An EB is a closed section of 6 to 8 cells and for each EB there is an officer as "educator" responsible. Those cells are kept close almost constantly.

The security staff consists of officers who are equipped with dogs, batons, and gag chains. Their behavior is rather different and often unpredictable. (One example: One example: A prisoner refuses to peel potatoes. Four guards appear, lead him away and beat him up). Sometimes the guards on duty are drunk. When they search the cells they don't care much about personal belongings of the prisoners. The often completely ravage the cell when they come for searching something.

All prisoners work in three shifts for the 'VEB Pentacon' and 'VEB Sprela'. The work is very dull: repeatedly drilling, cutting, punching, milling etc. Furthermore, many produced parts have to be filed and scraped by hand. There is hardly any protection available during working. If the required work is not done within the prescribed time the prisoner is threatened with punishment. In addition, such pressure increases even more the risk of accidents. Almost every prisoner is exposed to extreme noise and dust. At the 'VEB Pentacon' prisoners produce parts for photo cameras. For example, the "Praktika" photo camera which is sold to West Germany is produced by political prisoners.

Around eleven prisoners share one laundry facility, and 14 prisoners share one toilet. The washing basin is a sink connected to cold water. Wet shaving is compulsory. A shower may be taken once a week. But the showers are in a very poor condition, and some are clogged (don't function). Mostly several inmates have to share one water jet as shower. The underwear, although everything has a number on it, is often mixed up in the laundry process or returned to the prisoner without being washed.

Nobody had to suffer hunger, but the food is inferior and sometimes even nauseating. As a consequence of a vitamin deficiency every prisoner must be aware that he might at least lose some teeth.

When someone is getting sick it can take weeks until the sick prisoner will see a doctor. And often a sickness is treated incorrectly or not treated at all. In cases of emergency the prisoners often call attention by knocking at the wall of their cell or they begin to shout. But at night, most of such attempts don't succeed.

Relatives are allowed to visit every two months. But every conversation is monitored closely. It is prohibited to speak about the offense, to a lawyer, and about prison conditions. A visit will be terminated immediately if these rules are not observed. Radios are strictly forbidden.

The central newspaper of the SED (Socialistic Union Party of Germany) "Neues Deutschland" (New Germany) and the newspaper of the FDJ (Free German Youths) "Junge Welt" (Young World) are distributed to every prisoner free of charge. A local newspaper can also be purchased. A small library can be used once a week. The learning of foreign languages is prohibited. To see a movie is allowed every two months, and to watch TV - twice a week. But not all prisoners are allowed to these events. Small selected groups may use a record player once a month. A volley ball game is possible at irregular times; otherwise every kind of sport activity is prohibited.

In each cell is a Bible. Only those detainees who laid open their personal religious believes when they arrived at the prison will be allowed to attend a church service - but of their own confession only. A religious service takes place in the dining room once a month. The 'educator' can exclude an inmate from the church service for disciplinary reasons.

When the prisoner violated rules - for instance when he did not accomplish a required work at the required time, refused to work, refused to attend political education classes, criticizes the prison sentences, etc. etc. - he will be punished. Some common punishments are: To reduce someone's purchase possibilities; to prohibit the receipt of parcels, to watch TV; solitary confinement or detention. Usually several punishments at once are used against the prisoner."

SOURCE: Nikolaus Fleck's witness report, ISHR documentation "Prisons in the German Democratic Republic/GDR: Prison Hoheneck, Prison Brandenburg, and Prison Cottbus", 1985 (in German)