Fighting Recidivism

From Convict to Entrepreneur

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The German prison system is expensive and tends to produce more hardened criminals. One nonprofit hopes to turn that around by training inmates to be entrepreneurs.

  • Facts


    • There are 65,000 people imprisoned in the German prison system.
    • The country’s prison system costs an estimated €4 billion per year.
    • Nonprofit Leonhard boasts a 12 percent recidivism rate for graduates of its program, much lower than the national average.
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A prison in Bavaria. An unusual program in the German state seeks to reduce recidivism. Source: DPA

Bernward Jopen is discussing the foundations of entrepreneurship with his students. Why would you want to run your own business? What are the risks?

You’re your own boss, one student says.

You can offer products that are meaningful to you, says another.

Mr. Jopen, 74, nods, pleased with these answers. The classroom has high ceilings and stucco walls. You could almost imagine this to be an ordinary seminar for first-year university students, if it weren’t for the bars on the windows and for the fact that the students are all men dressed in blue overalls.

Mr. Jopen, who previously taught at the Munich Technical University, is now teaching drug dealers, tax evaders, scam artists and violent criminals at one of the biggest prisons in the country in Munich. He founded Leonhard, a nonprofit named after Saint Leonhard, the patron of prisoners, along with his daughter, Maren Jopen, with the goal of turning about-to-be-released inmates into entrepreneurs. It’s a goal that is within reach of many former prisoners as long as they are given a chance, the father and daughter say.

The German prison system as a whole costs taxpayers an estimated €4 billion per year.

Many convicted criminals have a lot of potential, says Ms. Jopen, the managing director of Leonhard. “They ended up going in the wrong direction, however.”

The Jospens are convinced that the prisoners they work with are at least as entrepreneurial as the students that Mr. Jopen used to teach at university. They also believe that inmates, like everyone else, deserve a second chance – and that they can benefit German industry and the economy rather than draining financial resources.

The problem with prisons is that they often perpetuate a cycle of criminal activity by exposing small-time criminals to violent convicts. “A prison is a very bad place to prepare people [to be upstanding citizens],” says lawyer and criminologist Bernd Maelicke. Outside of prison, he adds, the perception is that “once a thug, always a thug.” People who have served time face a lifetime of stigma. Friends and acquaintances turn away, and job prospects are severely diminished.

It is no surprise then that, according to a long-term study commissioned by the German Ministry of Justice, almost half of all sentenced criminals become repeat offenders. It’s a poor report card for the German prison system. The recidivism rate for federal offenders in the United States is comparable, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission which found that 49.3 percent of freed federal offenders are arrested again with eight years.

Recidivism is a costly phenomenon. Around, 65,000 people are imprisoned across Germany, according to the state criminological service of North Rhine-Westphalia. The cost per prisoner per day in jail is €133.55 ($158.45). The German prison system as a whole costs taxpayers an estimated €4 billion per year.

The Leonhard program aims to reduce recidivism by alleviating the troubles that commonly afflict former inmates. There’s no minimum educational background required to participate in the program. That means that at Leonhard, high school dropouts work alongside doctoral students on their future business plans. The MBA-like course is offered twice a year and lasts 20 weeks, daily from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Then there’s homework. It’s hard work, and not everyone completes the program. Because many of the detainees find it difficult to control their aggression, the program also includes training in nonviolent communication.

Currently, the Jopens only accept applications in Bavaria for inmates who have between five and 12 months of their prison sentences remaining. They only accept inmates who own up to their crimes; sex offenders and serial criminals are excluded.

Each year, up to 38 prisoners can take part in the program and it costs €9,500 per participant. Twenty percent of the cost is defrayed by donations and 80 percent comes from the Federal Employment Agency.

So far, Leonhard courses appear to be working. According to the organization, 60 percent of released graduates found employment or began studying after an average of 26 days; 29 percent of graduates were self-employed. Overall, 88 percent of them stayed out of prison. A study by the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich calculated that for every euro put into the Leonhard project, the country recoups €1.70.

Why does the Jopens’ program seem to function better than other similar programs? Bernd Maelicke, who spent 15 years as the warden at a prison in the state of Schleswig-Holstein and advises state governments on resocialization projects, said it’s because the Jopens are entrepreneurs themselves.

“They have a completely different idea of humanity,” Mr. Maelicke said after visiting the program. They don’t look at people’s deficits, but at their strengths, he added. “The climate is appreciative and partnership-based.”

Often, former inmates have to start their lives over again from scratch, having lost lovers and friends while they were in prison. Leonhard seeks to help graduates from the program not feel alone, assigning former inmates mentors, often from the business sector. In addition, Leonhard also helps with transitional apartments.

Felix Seiler, a 32-year-old Leonhard graduate, spent three-and-a-half years in prison for buying credit card details and using them to finance a lavish lifestyle. Before falling on the wrong side of the law, he worked for Rocket Internet, a Berlin-based firm. While he was in prison, Mr. Seiler noticed how agonizingly long it took for letters to reach relatives or friends. Now, he has started a company called Jailbird, which offers a service to improve the speed with which inmates can communicate with the outside world.

One of Mr. Seiler’s friends from Leonhard, who did not want to give his real name, now works in a small village near Munich where he is reviving his old business: “What I learned at the Leonhard course can’t be bought with money,” he said.

While the rate of relapse in Germany is between 46 and 49 percent, only 12 percent of Leonhard graduates relapse. Mr. Maelicke is impressed with the program, but says that not enough time has passed to complete a truly meaningful statistical analysis.

The Jopens, however, are ready to expand their program. They want to give 85 percent of all German prisoners access to it by 2025 at which time the number of graduates could rise to up to 500 per year.

Back in the classroom, Mr. Jopen’s newest cohort of students is still getting the hang of things. One convicted drug dealer has been thinking about what Mr. Jopen said about trust. “How will we win customers?” he asks. “We’re gangsters.”

“No,” Mr. Jopen says. “You were gangsters.”


Anna Gauto covers politics for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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