Behind bars because of poverty

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By Lukas Gilbert and Ulrich Jones
Every year, the German state locks up thousands of people because they cannot pay their fines. Hinz&Kunzt vendor Thomas is one of them.
Anyone wanting to speak with Hinz&Kunzt vendor Thomas, 56, currently has a dreary trek ahead of them. It leads past the allotments and railway tracks and over the A1 motorway where the traffic is backed up.
Public buses don’t run here. Instead, a prisoner transport truck with blacked-out windows rolls down the street. It slowly moves through the automatic gates and behind the rain-soaked concrete walls of the Billwerder correctional facility (JVA).
Thomas came here in a truck just like this a few weeks earlier after encountering a police checkpoint near to the Hoheluftbrücke metro station. He regularly travelled by bus and train to get around, or just to warm up or get some sleep.
He had been living on the streets for years, and because he could not afford a ticket, a sizeable mountain of debt piled up over the past few years from various transport operators, some of whom had reported him to the police several times for “abuse of services”.
In these cases, the public prosecutor will often opt for simplified proceedings without a trial: they move for a penalty order, which the court then signs and sends off. Thomas said his never reached him, and in any case, he could not afford to pay the €1,500 (£1,300) fine – so a warrant is put out for his arrest, his fine to be converted into time served in prison.
The so-called daily rate of fine-to-jail time is based on income: the court sets Thomas’ at €30 (£36). This means that he has to spend the next 50 days in Block 1, B Ward, Cell 22 of Billwerder prison.

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