How do white-collar criminals endure jail

"Scammers are very accommodating"

Christian Timm, Von Stein's director, believes that no one gets better in prison. We asked why white-collar criminals suffer extremely while in custody and why fraudsters like to work in the kitchen Renate Graber.

DEFAULT: Are you doing justice here?

Timm: Is justice being done here? With us in stone? (Break) It is my job to carry out final judgments. And I trust in the rule of law Austria. So: yes, justice is done here.

DEFAULT: 776 men sit in stone. 70 have been for life, 70 are in their twenties, a hundred are mentally abnormal lawbreakers whose length of imprisonment depends on their recovery. One hundred are members of organized crime, 140 are seriously ill with drugs ...

Timm: The remaining 250 are normal for Stein: inmates, however, who were suspicious in other institutions, for example because they did not come back from open areas.

DEFAULT: Do you actually know all of the prisoners here?

Timm: No, but most of the mental abnormalities, those from organized crime, the long-punished ones, where I decide when we start the discharge preparation phase. And those who cause security problems and are therefore housed in the high-security wing. And those who are always haunted by the media.

DEFAULT: Are you actually afraid of some inmates?

Timm: Am I scared? No, I am a trained prison guard.

DEFAULT: Your father and uncle were prison guards in Krems, and you ...

Timm: I wanted to become a lawyer, but we were six children and I couldn't study. My father wanted to send me to the military academy, but I refused, and so he enrolled me for the prison guard school. I started in the Vienna-Josefstadt prison, and I kept wanting to stop. But then I started my law studies.

DEFAULT: You wanted to become a sports reporter, didn't you?

Timm: As a boy. I played soccer in the meadow out there.

DEFAULT: Related to Christian Timm from Borussia Dortmund?

Timm: I don't know, at least the name Timm comes from Northern Germany, like my grandfather.

DEFAULT: There's even a Mount Timmia named after botanist Joachim Timm who lived in the 18th century.

Timm: I did not know that. At Timms there are painters, soccer players, and (laughs) Directors of prisons.

DEFAULT: You have been the boss here for exactly three years. Are you proud to have got the job?

Timm: Proud too, but that's not the point. But to be the head of the legendary Stein penitentiary is the position par excellence in the penal system.

DEFAULT: Although it is only the second largest institution: Vienna-Josefstadt, the gray house, is even larger with more than a thousand inmates.

Timm: Yes, but has a different function; Josefstadt, as the largest center for prisoners on remand, divides the inmates over the whole of Austria after their conviction and is, so to speak, a supplier for the other prisons. Without wanting to diminish the very good performance of the colleagues there: The real penal system takes place in institutions like Stein. We have everyone here, from the mentally challenged to university professors. We don't have a professor at the moment.

DEFAULT: At the age of 37 you became the youngest prison head in Austria, as director in Vienna-Simmering. For example, there are people who are responsible for serious traffic accidents. An easier job there?

Timm: Another. With people who are sentenced to shorter prison terms, the point is to maintain existing social settings and connections. You shouldn't interrupt them.

DEFAULT: The terrorist from the Abu Nidal group who was there when the El-Al counter at Vienna Airport was attacked in 1985 has been with you for life.

Timm: Yes, but he got a penalty. Because he was sitting in Graz-Karlau, was there when a hostage was taken, was convicted again and is now in stone.

DEFAULT: The notorious Adolf Schandl also took part in the hostage-taking in Graz, who fled Stein in 1971 after being taken hostage and whom the Vienna Police President Josef Holaubek addressed with the words: "It's me, the President." Schandl is now 75; his imprisonment ends in 2027. At that time he will be 91 years old.

Timm: Yes. Whereby: Schandl is now imprisoned in Garsten.

DEFAULT: You are considered a critical advocate of the liberal prison system. You say that there is "nothing rosy about it". But the conditions in prisons are catastrophic, aren't they?

Timm: I don't see it that way, but I think we have to improve a lot. I want to tell the people outside how it's going in the prison. They believe that criminals should be locked up in solitary confinement for as long as possible and that they should be accused of their crime every day. You imagine that there is the big funnel into which the bad guys come upstairs, then a heavy dungeon, and downstairs everyone comes out purified. A big mistake.

DEFAULT: Criminal law professor Peter Bertel says five years in prison ruins people.

Timm: I cannot agree with that one hundred percent. I learned in Stein that there are people, albeit few, who are so dangerous and untreatable that they cannot be let loose on humanity.

DEFAULT: How many are there?

Timm: About forty, fifty. But everyone who wants to get therapy and support. But these clichés about the evil monsters that have to be separated from behind high walls are ridiculous, and I fight them.


Timm: For example with guided tours for the relatives of our employees so that they know how things are going here. They are often surprised that the inmates have knives - but we all have knives. In the high security prison in Stein, too, people eat with a knife and fork, how else? Only a handful of prisoners have to return their cutlery after they have eaten, and those who are acutely suicidal only get a spoon for the mashed potatoes. Often the visitors also ask me: "What does a prisoner need a frying pan for?" For cooking because he lives in an assisted living group.

DEFAULT: Around half of your prisoners live in residential groups, what is it like there?

Timm: Such a group consists of around thirty inmates plus carers; everyone has their own cell, but there are also common rooms and cooking facilities. There is washing, cleaning, cooking. Like outside.

DEFAULT: I notice that here in the office you have a lot to do with stone: photos of stones, stone floor under the conference table. You made a fool of yourself when you took office three years ago: Your office renovation cost 60,000 euros.

Timm: 67,000 euros. I made a mistake there. And yes, I have something for stone and stone, otherwise I wouldn't be there. Stone, for many, stands for a state, not a place. The inmates call the institution "Fösn" (Rocks; note), not just because the mountain begins behind it.

DEFAULT: Are criminals concerned or proud when you land there?

Timm: Most affected. A few are happy because there is work for 95 percent of the inmates.

DEFAULT: And who is proud?

Timm: Serious criminals who even I would call hopeless cases.

DEFAULT: How do you become like that?

Timm: In part, that is something that is inherent in you. People are free in their decisions, but the scope for decision-making varies depending on the circumstances into which one is born. Often it is about congenital or acquired diseases, sex offenders were mostly abused themselves.

DEFAULT: But there are people who just want to do evil, right?

Timm: Very few. I've met a few, most of whom have committed sexually motivated homicides. Cynical people mostly.

DEFAULT: So smart people.

Timm: That is what makes them dangerous. Anthony Hopkins, one of my favorite actors ...

DEFAULT: Don't say "The Silence of the Lambs" is your favorite movie ...

Timm: One of my favorite movies. But I also go to the theater away from clichés and like to listen to music. So: Hopkins expresses that very well in the film. I know people of a similar category, and they are among the very few who are better to be phased out forever. And that's not a questionable attitude on my part, it's reality.

DEFAULT: Is there evil in each of us, to ask banally?

Timm: The thing with the "beast man" is a bit flat. But in certain situations, anyone can become a perpetrator. It also depends on the definition of "crime". During the Nazi era, people were condemned for listening to foreign broadcasters, and homosexuals and adulterers were criminalized for a long time.

DEFAULT: Until Broda's criminal law reform in 1975.

Timm: Yes, and from that point of view anyone can become a criminal. We here outlaw the deed, but respect the perpetrator - otherwise we would not be able to endure the inmates and our work. I am not allowed to act like a judge, I am not a judge. And I make mistakes too.

DEFAULT: They are very often reported by prisoners.

Timm: Right. Sometimes people who really want to get out of stone want to put me under such pressure. But I will not allow myself to be put under pressure. I'm also made of a hard type of rock.

DEFAULT: The man of stone ...

Timm: Yes, I was born in stone a few hundred meters from here. And as the director of a monocratic organization, I am the lightning rod for everyone: inmates, journalists, employees. If the toilet doesn't flush, it's my fault too.

DEFAULT: Speaking of which. The prison kitchen is often under toilet sewage because of the bad sewers. Has it been rebuilt?

Timm: Currently fails because of the small amount of eight million euros.

DEFAULT: What would you do all day if you were locked up?

Timm: I would think about it and use all the opportunities that are offered to me in terms of employment and therapy. I would learn, try to study.

DEFAULT: Ex-Stein inmate Tibor Foco fled at the exit to the lecture and never reappeared. Do you currently have students among the prisoners?

Timm: No one doing a real degree. Doesn't do much for someone who sits in stone, for example starting a teaching degree. I wouldn't have allowed Foco to study either. Why should a person sentenced to life start studying law? In all agreement with my predecessor Karl Schreiner: I would not have allowed that.

DEFAULT: A lawyer recently told me that he would prefer any thief to an economic criminal. You too?

Timm: Insofar as, for example, thieves are more accessible to interventions in the penal system than fraudsters. Most of them are completely convinced of their innocence.

DEFAULT: Because they fall for themselves?

Timm: Because they don't see their act as a crime.

DEFAULT: Helmut Elsner, who could end up in Stein, feels even more like a victim after four years in custody than when he was arrested. Isn't detention doing anything?

Timm: I don't know Mr. Elsner. But white collar criminals often develop a defense mechanism in order not to let reality in. You build a facade that you believe in yourself. Detention only serves to protect the public and act as a deterrent.

DEFAULT: How do such people survive prison sentences?

Timm: Bad. I don't mean it sadistically, but: For them, imprisonment only serves the purpose of really hurting them. Such a person does not learn anything, but he suffers extremely.

DEFAULT: Her predecessor Karl Schreiner said that one could be happy when someone who was imprisoned as a robber goes out as a thief.

Timm: Detention cannot work miracles. Nobody gets better in prison, at most differently.

DEFAULT: A colleague of yours says he recognizes a cheater from his first sentence. That sounds very biased.

Timm: Not necessarily. I also dare to know who I have in front of me after five minutes. Even in prison, fraudsters are very courteous, extremely well-groomed, and value dialogue with people who are acceptable to them. They crowd into areas where it is easy to land. With us, for example, in the kitchen, where the officers cook, or on tours. The visitors, often psychologists and criminal lawyers, tell me: "You have wonderful employees", and I say: "Yes, that's an employee too, but that's the prisoner." And real scammers continue to work in prison: They get the most prominent people to correspond with you, to believe their stories, to donate money.

DEFAULT: You never use the word criminal. Why not?

Timm: No, I never say criminals, that's too hearty for me in terms of onomatopoeia. Verrbrrecherrr: I leave the floor to those who demand the heavy dungeon.

DEFAULT: Speaking of which: When the murderer Jack Unterweger was conditionally released from Stein before he became a serial killer, the then Stein boss Schreiner said: "We will never find a murderer so well prepared for freedom again."

Timm: Yes, but the wrong killer was prepared. I don't think anyone like him would be released early today.

DEFAULT: Do you feel sorry for some of the inmates too?

Timm: No, if it were so, I would be in the fast lane to amateurism. The doctor can't feel sorry for every patient either, he'd be dead, the doctor.

DEFAULT: Is there such a thing as decent criminals?

Timm: Yes, if you mean those who admit their deeds, fit in here and participate. But their share is decreasing. But that's exactly how it is in society outside, which is increasingly relinquishing its responsibility. People get involved, no longer expose themselves, dive through, go the opportunistic way. Just don't stand for something, just don't make clear statements. (His cell phone rings.)

DEFAULT: Oh, you have the Monk signature melody as your ringtone.

Timm: Yes: "It's a jungle out there."

DEFAULT: What is life about

Timm: My aim is to make a contribution to the security of Austria and to ensure that my son and my wife are well. It's about the fulfillment of meaning. And yes, it's about freedom.

(Long version of the interview; DER STANDARD, print edition, January 29/30, 2011)

CHRISTIAN TIMM (47) grew up in Krems-Stein as the eldest son of a prison guard, and after graduating from high school, went to the justice guard himself. He also studied law and at the age of 37 became the director of the Vienna-Simmering prison, making him the youngest prison director in Austria. Since 2008 he has been head of the high-security Stein prison, where criminals are sentenced to 18 months or more, such as Josef F., for example, or terrorists. Timm fights for the liberal penal system, does not like to mince his words, and is not infrequently criticized in the judiciary. The endurance athlete and stone fan is married and has a son.