Imprisoned to Be Free
Author: Susanne Gerecke, Kay Siering
Seven-metre-high walls, freezing cold cells and sadistic guards: Hoheneck women’s prison in the Erz Mountains is one of the dark secrets of East Germany. Criminal offenders as well as political prisoners served long sentences in the 700-year-old castle. Conditions in the prison were catastrophic, and many of the inmates committed suicide.
The public never knew exactly what went on behind the thick walls, and the 55,000-square-metre complex was not marked on any map. What went on there was only documented in secret files.
At Hoheneck, 21 women are housed in a single holding cell. The castle is massively overcrowded, with sometimes over 1,600 prisoners held there. Anyone who breaks the strict rules is locked up in the old dungeons of the castle. But the most-feared room is the so-called water cell. In this film, former prisoners confirm for the first time that women were actually forced to stand in water for hours in this cell.
Life at Hoheneck prison is governed by a strict 3-shift system. In the production halls in the south wing, the women have to produce goods for the West – everything from tights to shirts.
The women of Hoheneck are at the mercy of the despotic East German leadership. From their offices in the administrative building at the castle, the secret police deploy informants to the cells. These women, disguised as fellow inmates, are instructed to worm out the names of potential accomplices from the prisoners. For intimidation purposes, political prisoners are often held in cells with murderers. For some, the time in prison is so unbearable that they deliberately hurt themselves to be sent to the infirmary; they swallow spoons and forks or stick sewing needles under their skin.
SPIEGEL TV reporters Susanne Gerecke and Kay Siering spent months researching to find out the truth about Hoheneck. In exclusive interviews, former prisoners describe the hopelessness they felt as inmates, and even former guards talk about events at the castle for the first time. Previously unpublished archive footage shows what life was like inside the prison fortress.
year of production: 2009