I was just watching Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Show with the Mouse) this morning while cleaning house a bit. This is the most famous German childrens' television shows, broadcast every Sunday morning since 1971 on one of the main public-television stations. The star of the show is a pudgy burnt-orange mouse whose eyes click when he blinks them. He plays in silent comic vignettes. Between the vignettes there are real-world reports aimed at children.
As befits a public television station with an educational mission, the reporting segments are pretty matter-of-fact and highlight unflashy subjects like streetcar repair, how to build an Airbus, forestry, construction, jogging, and the like. This time around, to my amusement, the reporter Ralph took the kiddies inside a prison (g). The reporter Ralph, a genial fellow in his 20s with square black glasses, was first led through several big metal doors and fences to get inside the prison. Once inside, he was given a tour of the inmates' cells, the visiting room, meetings with social workers, the telephone area, and a few other places. We observed the nightly ritual of 'Umschluss', in which inmates are allowed to visit their friends' rooms (with the doors locked behind them) for a game of cards or a chat.
We saw an interview with Johnny, a bald 21-year-old serving a three-year sentence, which is long by German standards. Johnny describes his life in prison, tells us that he misses his family most of all, and wishes he had listened to the advice of friends and family, who had told him to clean up his act. When it comes time for Johnny to sweep his cell, the reporter helps. At the end of the interview, Ralph shakes Johnny's hand, wishes him good luck, and expresses a hope that next time, they'll meet in a more pleasant place. They then show him being escorted out of the prison.
A month or so I was at an academic conference, trying to explain German attitudes on criminal punishment to American scholars. I pointed out that state television is still important here, and programming on public channels is controlled by a certain set of guidelines and presumptions. The Show with the Mouse fits right in. There was no ominous music, no 'dramatizations' of the crime, no references to 'predators'. The millions of kids who watched this program saw a prisoner being treated with respect and even warmth by the reporter. The prison was portrayed as a place with strict rules where your freedom is limited, but where you can also socialize, take classes, and greet visitors from the outside world. Above all, it was made clear that all the people in this prison are going to get out within a few years and rejoin society, and this was portrayed as a normal and even good thing.
Of course, this is certainly not the only picture of crime and punishment German children are exposed to as they grow up -- there are tabloid newspapers everywhere in Germany, after all. But the Maus show today at least can act as a counterweight to more exploitative portrayals of crime.