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Inscriptions in Immigration Detention and Police Custody at Klapperfeld

»This is a historic house & everyone must write down something«

[inscription 62, cell 70]

Over the course of several decades, people in immigration detention have left thousands of inscriptions on the 2nd floor of this building. Doors, walls, window frames, tables and chairs in each of the cells have been used to express what otherwise could not have been expressed in detention – and this in a variety of different languages. So far, about 1,400 inscriptions have been documented, while many more have not been transcribed and translated yet.

The inscriptions documented so far were made between 1955 and 2002 – over a period of almost 50 years. The oldest inscriptions can be found on the folding chairs and tables of the single cells. This fact suggests that the furniture was installed in the 1950s and has not been renewed since. Most likely, those inscriptions were left by people who had been taken into police custody. However, the main focus of this exhibition is on the far larger number of inscriptions written by people in immigration detention. Apparently, cells had not been renovated after the 1980s as inscriptions on walls and doors date back until this period. Most of them are signed with men’s names, but we found two female authors’ names as well.

A great variety of writing tools has been used: some authors wrote with ballpoints or felt-tip pens, some used sharp objects to scratch or carve messages onto the walls or furniture. Others used the soot of candles or lighters, tooth paste or groceries like jam to make inscriptions. Witnesses confirm that inmates were allowed to take certain personal belongings like pens into the cells. The usage of everyday items like tooth paste and jam suggests that not all detainees had such objects in their luggage.

The content of the inscriptions varies as much as the writing tools. Yet particular themes reoccur: names, places of origin and residence, the date of the presumed deportation or the duration of detention can be found frequently. Many inscriptions are prayers, creeds or pleads for divine assistance. There are numerous political messages, often including nationalist symbols or harsh criticism of the German state, its citizens, police and judiciary. One can also discover loving messages to children, partners or friends as well as appeals to stand firm and a few tangible (legal) tips to fellow detainees. Some inscriptions are written in vulgar speech or have sexist, racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic content.

One detainee left a riddle to pass the time that reads something like: »What sort of weights do you need if you want to measure every number of kilograms between 1 and 40 with only four different weights?« Some inscriptions provide deeper insight into the conditions under which immigration detention and deportation were applied. For example, one message in Russian reads: »Shower Monday, Wednesday, Friday; feeding times at 10 am breakfast, at 12.30 pm and at 5 pm.« The night-time confinement and loneliness in solitary cells is described as follows: »it’s shitty here from 5 to 9 in the morning.« A Ukrainian inscription shows that at the time its author was alone in the prison: »From August 28th until August 31st all alone in prison. Two days and three nights.« Another inscription documents a lack of food distribution: »What’s going on here / Today there’s nothing to eat or what?« Several inscriptions express uncertainty about the upcoming release or deportation date. Two indicate that detainees were deported to the wrong country, i.e. not their country of origin.

In total, inscriptions in 32 different languages have been documented so far. The most common are Romanian/Moldovan (231), Polish (122), Arabic and Turkish (112), Russian (100), English (96), German (93) and Bosnian/Serbian (66). In some cases, inscriptions were written in several languages at once. The most frequently mentioned countries are the Republic of Moldova (139), Poland (87), Romania (85), Turkey (74) and Germany (73). 150 inscriptions contain information on the duration of detention: The majority of detainees (123) were held for less than a month, mostly for 13, 14 or 15 days. However, longer periods of imprisonment are also documented: One inscription speaks of half a year, another one even of a whole year.