Activist Frees 850 Prisoners, Exposing Unjust Law in German Justice System

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Late in 2021, Arne Semsrott embarked on an unusual mission. Clad in the weight of €20,000 borrowed from friends and personal savings, he found himself encumbered with a mix of anticipation and apprehension.

With no assurances of the outcome, he nevertheless headed towards Plötzensee prison in north-western Berlin, intending to grant prisoners their liberty with the money he carried. The mission was part of a much larger plan – to expose what he saw as a gaping unfairness in the German justice system.

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Semsrott, a seasoned journalist turned activist, had discovered an obscure legislation loophole. Without any obligation for an individual sentenced to fines to pay directly, he envisioned the possibility of securing their freedom from prison for those unable to pay. This was more than just a rescue mission; it was an exposé of a potentially unjust law allowing people to be imprisoned for failing to buy public transportation tickets.

“It turned out successful,” Semsrott shares, revealing that, “We liberated 12 men from Plötzensee that day, followed by nine women from the Lichtenberg prison.”

Together with his organization, Freiheitsfonds (The Freedom Fund), Semsrott has since facilitated the liberation of approximately 850 individuals, costing over €800,000. Critical of what he perceives as blatant discrimination, Semsrott asserts, “It discriminates heavily against individuals without means, unsheltered, or in crisis. Such law, in essence, is unbefitting in a democratic, just society.”

Indeed, it is estimated that 7,000 individuals remain imprisoned in Germany for such fine-related offenses, most of whom had initially been sentenced to fines, yet were incapable of payment. This leads to serving what is known as an Ersatzfreiheitsstrafe – a substitute custodial sentence.

Among those directly impacted is Gisa März – a middle-aged woman who has been sustaining herself by selling the Düsseldorf street magazine, fiftyfifty. Incarcerated for four months for repeated ticketless train journeys owing to financial constraints, März’s plight resonates with many.

While most ticketless commuters pay a penalty fare of €60 and continue their lives, those considered chronic offenders face persecution, regardless of their ability to pay the penalty fare.

As a staunch advocate against such punitive legal practices, Semsrott believes nobody should be jailed for such cases. He emphasizes that social services, not prisons, are the appropriate means of support for individuals battling psychological challenges, homelessness, or other crises.

Simultaneously, Semsrott also points out that the Freedom Fund has saved the state approximately €12m by freeing 850 people: the cost of maintaining them behind bars. Despite Semsrott and his organization’s efforts, public transport in Germany has resisted changes to the contentious law.

Uncertain until the next parliamentary elections in 2025, the future of the law remains in limbo. However, initiatives such as Freedom Fund, catalyzed by people like Gisa März, are encouraging change at a local level – as apparent from the recent directive by Düsseldorf’s city council prohibiting the prosecution of ticketless passengers by local transportation authority Rheinbahn. While unyielding systems resist, the hope for justice continues to burn, fuelled by the steadfast spirit of individuals like Semsrott. Until then, the fight for a more equitable society continues unabated.