Prison cells share almost-universal physical characteristics: four walls, a door, a bed to sleep, a place to relieve oneself, and seldom a source of natural light.  Their specific use, however, depends on a cultural context; the four walls of a prison cell—and by extension the prison’s perimeter walls, too—can transform a purely physical imprisonment into something much different. This is particularly evident in prisons that house political prisoners.

Two types of prisoners, common criminals and those incarcerated for political reasons, are separated with a major difference. The former leave their emotions at the door and have no organized aspirations to undermine the government.  Therefore, they are of little concern to the State.  For them, daily life in prison is composed of a series of mindless mechanical repetitions, almost like that of a low level bureaucrat accustomed to his/her schedule.

The latter group, on the other hand, arrives at a prison with the convictions of much of the general population, keeping strong a narrative and ideals opposite to those championed by the regime.  That is one of the main concerns for the State which, in order to preserve its power, relies on the destruction of political prisoners’ ability to express their views in a public arena (thereby indirectly extending the State’s control to the general populace).  To accomplish its goal, the State effectively transforms prisons into a medium of cultural geographic interaction by design.  In such an environment, even the smallest details are most effectively utilized to control confined space and the humans living there.

The Spirit of Collectivism

Perhaps the most elaborate system of using a prison as a cultural geographic tool against political prisoners was developed by the Ministry for the State Security of the former German Democratic Republic (i.e., East Germany), commonly known as the Stasi. In a perverted sense, between 1949 and 1990 their ability to utilize (restriction of) space would reach an artistic form, for the sole purpose of developing the most efficient means of population control in prisons and within the country’s national boundaries alike. From all the prisons in the former East Germany, Hohenschönhausen Prison held the premier status of a place where the Stasi’s most dedicated—and most secretive—work was performed.

Figure 1. Hohenschönhausen’s history as a prison begins immediately after the end of the World War II, first run as a camp by the Soviets, then turned into a full-scope prison by the East Germans. Depicted here is the oldest block of the cells dating to the 1950s (All photographs were taken by the author.)

Preconditioning Through Diesel Therapy

Throughout the years, all types of the regime’s enemies where housed in Hohenschönhausen, including former Nazis and former Socialist Unity Party’s officials who fell out of favor.  Yet it may come as surprise to some readers that some of the worst treated prisoners were ordinary people unaffiliated with political activities. Their only crime was an unsuccessful attempt to escape to the West.  A desire for uninterrupted freedom of movement, a basic human right, the government considered to be one of the worst crimes.  Voting with one’s feet (emigration) was a clear challenge to the system founded on mass control of the population, thus it had to be eliminated. At the end, despite all resources involved, total population control did not work.  The Berlin Wall crumbled as did the totalitarian system that erected it.

Figure 2.  Observation tower for just-in-case scenario.  No records exist about any escape attempts.

Figure 3. Every detail was monitored from the control room.

Attention to the spatial detail at Hohenschönhausen was remarkable.  Prisoners, isolated from each other, were unable to communicate with anyone other than interrogators. Despite this being a remand prison with all the inmates technically only temporarily housed, waiting for a trial, many spent months and even years without trial.  At the same time, the prisoners and their families were not allowed to know where they were interned.  To ensure that it remained that way, the authorities employed numerous strategies.  Among them was a local version of the so-called diesel therapy.  Transport of prisoners to Hohenschönhausen in a specially-designed truck—with five separate windowless cells—would last longer than necessary with the goal of disorienting  them.  The trucks would arrive in a closed garage and immediately unload the “shipment” one by one into cells.  From there, the people waiting for trial only moved to and back from the interrogator’s office.

Figure 4. An interrogation room with interrogator’s chair and telephone as some of the main decorations. During the prison’s operational years everything in the room was deliberately arranged and carefully maintained.

Business as Usual

Outside the gates a perfect spatial arrangement existed, separating the prison complex from the lives of ordinary East Germans.  All the nearby office and residential buildings were under jurisdiction of the Stasi.  Residential properties housed Stasi employees, prison guards, and family members.  Some of them still reside there as former Stasi employees and prison guards.Figure 5.  The landscape on the other side of the prison wall.

During its 45 years of operation in various capacities, ordinary citizens of the German Democratic Republic were unaware of the Hohenschönhausen prison’s existence.  It did not even exist on maps; an area depicting its location was left blank.  The secret was so closely guarded that even the former prisoners realized that Hohenschönhausen was their prison only after the German Reunification, when it was turned into a memorial and archival files became available.

Figure 6.  Doors on former garages.


In Freedom of Movement and Travel is an Enemy of the State, I wrote that “Adequate knowledge about places first and foremost generates positive accounts, memories, and opinions—it leads to peace.  That makes freedom of movement and travel an enemy of the State.”

In Traces of Places in Our Mind and Service to Global Awareness, I added:

“Control of information exchange and freedom of movement are the two most important factors in preventing a population’s dissent against the governing system.  Most restrictive countries, current and those in the past, utilize these two methods of population control to the fullest degree.  When people cannot receive information alternative to that of the official mantra, and have their freedom of travel restricted, they will be less likely to question the official policies and revolt against them. When a population is willing to know the truth and actively seek information, nothing can ultimately prevent them from acquiring it.”

Despite elaborate attempts to preserve the totalitarian system of dominance and absolute control over the East German population, the regime ultimately collapsed.  The people won.  Other similar ill-created systems in Eastern Europe crumbled in a similar fashion.

Emotion and Devotion 

Time, people often say, heals all wounds.  I would add that time and space combined can heal many if not all wounds.  It is not only that we need a period of time to help us overcome something, but that cannot happen without help of geography.  As much as we need time we also need space.

“Inter-personal cultural interaction stimulates people to focus on each others’ similarities, rather than differences,” I noted in Traces of Places….  “It humanizes us and removes the curtain of ignorance.  People who have not experienced a certain place are more apt to see it in a negative light than are those who have visited the “alien” location.”  It was primarily for that reason that the former East German authorities made sure to restrict their fellow countrymen from freedom of movement and travel to the West and elsewhere.  While doing so, with enormous devotion, they also perfected the use of a prison cell and transformed it into a spatial masterpiece.

Spatial Masterpiece of a Political Prison’s Cell
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