Germany / Heidelberg

Heidelberg Studentenkarzer: Student Prison

A common attitude among students is the oppressive ‘prison’ that is school, usually accompanied by eye rolling, great tortured sighs and the whine of the persecuted when school and its requirements interfere with entertainment activities.  Not that this ever happens with my teens.  That I homeschool.  Nooooo….

In Heidelberg, Germany, however, the students of Heidelberg University can boast an actual student prison.  Don’t think I won’t be getting some mileage out of that concept in our home!

When I was talking to one daughter about this post (she noticed the cool pics on my screen and asked) I explained the history of the prison.  Her reaction?  Spreading her arms and crying to the ceiling, School’s already a prison, what are you doing?!

So when we were spending a few days in the University town, that was one thing that had to be seen.  (FYI, I may have a fascination with the school/prison connection – I wrote about a prison that became a university building, and then a library, too, in Quebec City <<HERE>>.)

Interior of bedroom 'cell' in the Heidelberg Studentenkarzer. Student Prison

Interior of bedroom ‘cell’ in the Heidelberg Studentenkarzer.

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Heidelberg Studentenkarzer:  University Authority and Student Prison Beginnings

Grafitti'd common area in the prison, with a guest book where you can record your visit. Heidelberg Studentenkarzer Student Prison.

Graffiti’d common area in the prison, with a guest book where you can record your visit!

From its 14th century inception, Heidelberg University had legal jurisdiction over its students.  This meant that if a student broke code of conduct rules, or ran afoul of the law somehow, the punishment of students fell to the university.  Most such infringements took the form of disturbing the peace (loud singing in the lanes is specifically mentioned), public drunkenness, and participation in illegal duels.  But other offenses could include insulting a uniformed officer, and the ever popular releasing of the pigs and piglets penned in the Old City and driving them through the streets!  Any students sited for such behaviors could spend anywhere from 24 hours to 4 weeks in Heidelberg University’s student prison.

The Studentenkarzer, or student prison, was at first a space under the stairs of the Old University building (Harry Potter reference anyone?).  Because this was a dank, dark place that could possibly pose a risk to student health, the student prison was moved to its current location on Augustinergasse in 1712.

Iron railing detail on Studentenkarzer stairs. Heidelberg Studentenkarzer Student Prison.

Iron railing detail on Studentenkarzer stairs.

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Heidelberg Studentenkarzer:  Prisoner Treatment and Activities

Once a student was brought to the Studentenkarzer, for the first 48 hours they would only be given bread and water for nourishment.  However, after that, a student could have food brought in, even beer – so be good to your friends and they will keep you well fed through the incarceration.  Mattressed beds were provided, but a student had to pay for the use of any bedding and pillows during the stay.

The "King's Throne" within the prison.  Heidelberg Studentenkarzer Student Prison.

The “King’s Throne” within the prison.

There is a door that connects the prison to the University building, so students were expected to continue attending classes and required University events, and completing assigned work.  But any other time, the student must reside in the prison.  Since boredom soon set in, students would carve into the woodwork, play cards… and cover every available space with graffiti.  Students were given free rein inside the Studentenkarzer, and were free to mingle in the public areas and in other rooms.  Because of that, graffiti and student’s carvings decorate the walls, stairs, ceilings, and furniture from the base of the stairs at the entrance, throughout the 2nd floor space the student prison occupies.  At first, the students would use candle soot and anything available to lend color to their work, but with time students came prepared with their own paints upon incarceration.

Another creative outlet for the students was coming up with formal names for the rooms of the prison.  The names included Solitude, Palais Royale, and Sanssouci.  And you can guess which little room they called the “King’s Throne.”  Some things never change.

Detailed grafitti within the prison. Can anyone translate?? Heidelberg Studentenkarzer Student Prison.

Detailed grafitti within the prison. Can anyone translate??

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Heidelberg Studentenkarzer:  Unintended Consequences in Student Prisoner Pride

Staying in the student prison was clearly intended to be a deterrent, but these things sometimes don’t workout they way we hope.  Instead, staying in the prison became a right of passage for many in the school, and having at least one stint in the Studentenkarzer was a point of pride.  By the last years of the student prison’s existence, visitors in the prison were even allowed, student pride in incarceration went so far as the hosting of incarceration celebration and jailhouse parties where guests came prepared to decorate the walls with graffiti from their respective fraternities.

More uniformed student portraits in the prison. Heidelberg Studentenkarzer Student Prison.

More uniformed student portraits in the prison.

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Heidelberg Studentenkarzer:  Visiting Today

Sadly, or not, the student prison stopped being used at the outbreak of World War 1.  The area was simple closed up and left, and life went on at the University.  Because of this, the rooms were perfectly preserved.  Iron bedframes, carved desks and chairs, all sitting as if the prisoners were simply in class.  Except for the annoying presence of graffiti added by tourists.  Because of these additions, most of the areas are roped off and we can simply peer into the rooms from the doorways.  (Don’t be one of those disgraceful tourists and add to that problem.)

The prison area is small, and a visit can take as little as 10-15 minutes if you want it to.  But if you come with camera in hand (which I highly recommend) you may, like me, spend about 30 minutes taking pictures and peering at the details.  You can even pick up a “University of Heidelberg” t-shirt in the little gift shop where you buy your ticket.  Both my girls sport theirs regularly.  I’m kinda bummed it doesn’t say “prison” on it.

  • Location:  Augustinergasse 2
  • Cost:  3.00 € (Combined Ticket for University Museum, Alte Aula and Student’s Prison); 2.50 € reduced rate
  • Hours according to the Tourism Office:
    • April – Oct: Daily 10:00am – 6:00pm;
    • Nov. – March: Mon. – Sat. 10:00am – 4:00pm
  • Time Allotted: 20-30 minutes maximum
  • Tips:
    • Take your camera, this place is incredibly instagrammable.
    • Keep in mind the prison is on the second floor with little/no air conditioning
    • We didn’t see any elevator, so you will have to climb one flight of stairs

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Interior of another 'cell' within the Studentenkarzer. Heidelberg Student Prison.

Interior of another ‘cell’ within the Studentenkarzer.

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Information for this article was gathered from the following locations:

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Heidelberg Studentenkarzer Student Prison

16 thoughts on “Heidelberg Studentenkarzer: Student Prison

  1. Wow that is really interesting! They don’t still do this now do they? I almost feel like it is a better way to keep kids in line! But pretty awesome that they had to still take classes….smart! 🙂

  2. That’s a incredibly unique and thanks for introducing me to this new concept -A student prison!! Graffiti on the walls looks stunning and good to hear they could have beer after 48 hours 😉

    • It’s really funny to read about the history. It sounds like it turned in to frat party central by the time the prison was closed down!

  3. What a fascinating post! I really like how you add the photos with the excellent narrative. I would love to visit this prison, and might not know about it if you hadn’t shared this. Thanks!

  4. Okay, this is such an interesting post. Very intriguing. I didn’t know places like this existed. I read this with so much awe. I hope no one gets in trouble now. Only bread and water for sometime? Man o man.

  5. I fully agree with you…the place looks completely picturesque! Did they deliberately not put AC on first floor? Nice post.

  6. How fascinating! I wonder if they have this at other universities, or if it’s unique to Heidelberg? Trust students to turn it into a party opportunity.

  7. Quite funny – I live in Heidelberg and it took me a few years to visit certain tourist attractions (Including this one). Mostly when I had guests from abroad visiting me 😉 There are some quite old mansion-like buildings in Heidelberg which belong to sororities (since the 17th century) – you couldn’t afford those nowadays 🙂

    • Oh! I’m so sorry I didn’t get to see some of the sorority houses! How cool is that? I did but my two teen daughters Heidelberg University t-shirts, and they wear them to school here. Maybe one day I’ll get to see those houses afterall. 😉

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