Santa Fu – presents from prison

Hamburg's creative cell

Santa Fu Titel

Four vertical, one diagonal – a succession of strokes that documents the passing days of incarcera-tion in prisons all over the world. In Hamburg, they're a familiar logo on an unusual brand: "Santa Fu – hot goods from gaol". High quality gifts made by inmates of the penal system. Our author Anne Kleinfeld ventured a glimpse behind the prison walls.


Anne Kleinfeld

Anne likes things that have wit, music, and love, and she is fascinated by human peculiarities. She writes best late at night with a weird cat in her lap.

More from Anne

Photos: Roeler

How many more days? It's cold in the cell. Between implacable walls stands a metal pallet with thin sheets, the bare toilet bowl bears witness to years of use by really hard cases. The prisoner scratches a stroke in the damp brick wall with bare fingernails and an expression of grim determination – four vertical, one diagonal, five steps towards freedom. A scene we all know from films, from TV series that feed the primitive human fascination with evil. It's a scene that also played in my own mind until I entered a prison for the first time. Only to discover that all that stuff bears practically no resemblance to a real, modern custodial sentence. Except for one thing: the hope of a better life after the release from jail.

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It all started with the cookery book: prison governor Angela Biermann displays "Chicken in handcuffs".

I have an appointment with the governor of the Glasmoor prison in Norderstedt, a little to the north of Hamburg Airport. Angela Biermann has worked in the penal system for 30 years. Before taking over the helm at Glasmoor in 2009, the graduate psychologist had already headed one institution in the Hamburg district of Fuhlsbüttel. Here at Glasmoor, Hamburg's municipal open prison, they've been making products of the Santa Fu jail brand with the apposite five-line logo for ten years now. Every article thought out by especially inventive prisoners, the so-called “creative cell”.

The only fences here are for the wild boars

The prison grounds appear almost idyllic. Surrounded by a nature reserve, several historic buildings are scattered over an area of around 25 hectares. Old stables and a pointed-gabled barn are now home to various production operations or serve as warehouses. The heart of the prison, however, is the flat brick square with its viewing tower, a listed building. Step by step, prisoners have been prepared here for a future at liberty since 1928 – entirely without barbed wire or barred windows.

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“The only fenced area in this terrain,” says Angela Biermann, “is the sports field. But that's only because of the wild boars”. The prison governor wears business dress, she doesn't carry a weapon. “Of course there has been the odd critical situation over the years, but by and large the place is non-violent”. She tells me they can sense that the 190 men and 19 women in the open prison really are in search of the right track. That's why there is no risk of escape despite the unlocked doors.

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Many products are hand-made in the "Santa Fu" workshop.

One of the main tasks of resocialisation is to set people on track for entry or re-entry into employment. Around half of the inmates now pursue a normal profession or training “outside” and only come for the night. There are job opportunities within the prison for all the rest. That's part of the reason why there's such a long waiting list for Glasmoor that it is to see further growth in the coming year, with alterations and new buildings – taking it to 250 places in total.

“Hot goods” under the Christmas tree

On the way to the Santa Fu workshop, we pass through a production hall where several men are stowing packaged rolls of yarn in boxes, stacking pallets, talking. A typical warehouse atmosphere. Works manager Uwe Bühring is waiting for us at the end of the building. He's a member of the prison staff who oversees and takes care of Santa Fu production and also lends a hand himself from time to time. At the moment he's standing between a workbench laden with paint-smeared stamps and a laundry airer hung with olive-green tee-shirts.

Across the chests, messages like “Made in Prison”, “Day Release Prisoner” or “Guilty”. The chatter of the sewing machine comes in from the right. A steady-handed prisoner seals transparent plastic bags, each containing a game block. It is a popular German game in which players have to find names beginning with certain initial letters. Only instead of the title “city-country-river”, this version is called “prison-country-river”. Another four workstations can be staffed depending on capacity requirements. “There's a lot going on in December,” says Mr Bühring – the “hot goods” make popular Christmas presents.

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Smart – even if you're not on the run: swag-bags.

It all started with the “Chicken in Handcuffs” – a cookery book with simple dishes, fun titles and beautiful illustrations. Did the prisoners write and draw everything themselves? Angela Biermann tells me they did. “Even to this day the book is one of the most popular articles”. As are, for example, the memory game with the photos of genuine prison tattoos, the faithful copy of the prison shaving kit with the name “Keep clean!” and the cloth bags made from sustainably produced cotton on which the prisoners have stamped the word “Beute” (“Swag”) in deliberately crooked letters. More and more have been added over the years. More products, more self-ironic messages, more loving details.

“The prisoners are proud of their products,” says Angela Biermann. “Besides, they see their work on them as a small measure of atonement”. I'm told that part of the income from their sales benefits the “Weisser Ring” victim protection organisation, which operates nationwide in Germany. As we leave the hall, I ask the governor whether she herself owns anything by Santa Fu. “Oh yes,” she replies, “I've been keeping a diary – the “Day and Night Book” – for years now”. The book is covered with fabric from the original prison mattresses. On the title page is a short, hopeful sentence: Thoughts are free.

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