Words Can Make a Difference
Words can make a difference; words can change lives. As a teenager living in Stuttgart, Germany, Tobias Merckle's life was changed upon reading a book about one man’s efforts to help gang members and drug addicts turn their lives around. This book was Tobias’ initial inspiration to dedicate himself to helping juvenile offenders transform their lives.
Tobias became interested in the idea of providing young offenders an alternative to juvenile prison after working in a drug rehabilitation centre in Tennessee, U.S.A. He remembers, “When I visited a prison in the US for the first time I thought to myself: This can’t be. We can’t treat juveniles like this, leaving them under the influence of the inmate subculture and not preparing them to start a life without crime. Being in this environment people don’t have a lot of chances to change themselves. We can’t do it to them, but we can’t do it to society either.” Tobias had a vision of developing an alternative to prison for German youth; his vision took only 13 years to become a reality.
After working in several prisons, Tobias began his thesis which focused on restorative justice. While attending a conference on this subject, Tobias met Dan Van Ness of Prison Fellowship International, and his relationship with PFI began. He was invited to visit APAC, a faith-based prison unit in Brazil, which he found inspiring. Then he worked at the PFI Secretariat in Switzerland and in the US as an assistant to Ron Nikkel, the President. During the latter time period, Tobias introduced the idea of an alternative to prison to the German Minister of Justice, and a year later in 2001 Prisma/Prison Fellowship Germany was founded.
At the end of 2003, Seehaus Leonberg, a faith-based youth farm, was launched as an alternative to prison for juveniles. In this 400-year-old converted German hunting lodge, male offenders, ages 14-23, serve their prison sentences in a small family setting. Juveniles live at this open facility for approximately 12-18 months learning to take responsibility for their past, present, and future. The launching of this facility marked the first time that a non-governmental organisation in Germany was ever permitted the authority to operate an alternative prison unit.
The young offenders live with house parents and their own children, protected from the negative influence of the adult prison subculture, as “students” in small family groups of up to 7 juveniles, eating together, sharing household responsibilities, and pursuing a programme of education, social skills, sport, vocational training, and exploration of faith. Under Tobias’ guidance, Seehaus has continued to expand, with the facility now housing high quality woodwork and metalwork shops, a bakery, a mobile graffiti removal service, and educational facilities.
The success of the programme can be seen in the Christian lifestyle so many of these men have chosen. In 2008 Tobias organized a work project to assist Prison Fellowship Romania in repairing and renovating three shelters. Men who had once lived at Seehaus took a week from their work and families to help the less fortunate. Acts such as these illustrate the accuracy of the words of the Minister of Justice Ulrich Goll, “Seehaus is a trend-setting model for the inner security of the state, for peaceful society, and the integration of young men in the state and in the community.”
Tobias contends that many factors have attributed to Seehaus’ success. “We take the juveniles into families where they experience family life and love – often for the first time in their life. We use the power of peers through a Positive Peer Culture, and they educate themselves. We train them in social skills, in taking on responsibility and they can get their school diploma and start to learn a trade. They experience a very strict daily schedule from 5.45 am – 10.00 pm and therefore learn to structure their lives. They also get exposed to many potential leisure time activities. In addition, as staff we want to pass on the Christian faith by living it as an example. It is also important that they have the possibility to receive aftercare.”
Tobias would like to see the model replicated throughout the country. Ivan Sotirov, PFI Regional Liaison, comments, “He has developed the best working model of alternatives to prison which is now attracting the attention of correctional and justice officials across Germany. I admire him for his hands-on leadership and his big heart for juvenile prisoners.” Indeed the success of Seehaus in the Baden-Wurttemberg state has been noticed; the Ministry of Justice of Saxonia has given approval for PF Germany/Prisma to start a second project. However, the project’s commencement hinges on funding.
Tobias continues to work to empower young men to transform their lives. His strategy is simple; instead of locking young people up and surrounding them with others who have made bad choices, society must provide juveniles an alternative to prison which provides real, loving relationships with people who will minister to their spiritual and physical needs. This is the winning approach that Tobias envisioned many years ago and which PF Germany has applied, attributing to countless people's lives being changed.