Gisa März was imprisoned for several months for driving without a fine. The Düsseldorf city council then decriminalized her driving without a fine.

A woman leans on a ticket machine, there is a bus to the right.

The man, now 57 years old, was imprisoned in the Düsseldorf penitentiary for “benefit cheating”. Photo: Andreas Fechner

A year after being released from prison, Gisa März walks through the door of the fiftyfifty club near Düsseldorf central station. She tied her white blonde hair in a ponytail. At the reception desk she will find cups, coffee makers and milk. March doesn't want coffee, but she asks for some issues of the street magazine that the club publishes. An employee writes down the number of magazines delivered on a list. The magazine costs 2.80 euros. If Gisa März sells a copy, she keeps half of her money and donates the other half to the club, fifty percent.

From November 2022 to March 2023, the 57-year-old man was imprisoned in the Düsseldorf prison for “evading benefits”, i.e. driving without a fine. He was even lucky: the penal code allows a sentence of up to one year. Paragraph 265a was introduced by the Nazis in 1935. To this day it has not been abolished. Recently, the Ministry of Justice only cut the period in half.

Almost 90,000 people across the country are reported each year because they were found without a valid ticket. The people who end up in jail are those who cannot pay a fine. According to TAZ estimates, this affects almost 2,000 people a year; About 800, like Gisa März, are serving prison sentences. Around 1,100 people received an alternative prison sentence, because they cannot pay the so-called increased transport fare. This costs the State between 100 and 200 euros per day per person, that is, in total more than a quarter of a million euros.

Depends on public transportation

Gisa März has been selling the fiftyfifty homeless magazine almost since its inception in 1995. Her mother died then, she says. She had to move out of the apartment they shared, she couldn't get a new one, she lived on the street and used drugs. Selling the magazine saved her from begging and stealing. The club supported her, she says, she felt cared for. She accepted a one-euro job and entered a drug substitution program. The doctor who supplies her with Polamidon daily has her practice in Düsseldorf-Benrath. From her apartment in the former working-class district of Düsseldorf-Oberbilk she takes the S-Bahn three stops.

prisoner release The Freedom Fund has announced another “Freedom Day” for April 10. That day, people who are in prison for driving without a fine will be released on bail.

freedom fund The initiative was founded in December 2021. It calls for the decriminalization of driving without a fine. In the long term, public transport should be able to be used free of charge.

Donate In order to buy freedom for prisoners, the Freedom Fund collects donations. According to data from the company itself, almost 794,000 euros have been raised so far. In this way, 911 people were rescued. 166 years of prison were dissolved, saving the State 12.9 million euros. More information:

“I usually always had a ticket,” says Gisa März this spring morning in the fiftyfifty lounge. She is small and narrow, sits slouched in the chair and holds her head to one side. She has a bag of muffins in her hand; She hasn't had breakfast yet.

Gisa März receives discounted tickets through the employment office. This was also the case in 2019. But the mail from the employment office did not arrive on time. This is happening more and more often, says Gisa März. “I always bought tickets, but at some point during the month I ran out of money. And what to do if they force you to go to the doctor? “For once, he boarded the S-Bahn without a ticket. And it was promptly checked. A week later, the same thing happened again: they boarded without a ticket, they searched him and caught him .

Düsseldorf does not work without traveling by train, says Gisa März. “From time to time I meet my grandchildren, they ask me about me.” She also knows some homeless people living at the train station. “And if you want to go to the soup kitchen in the old town, because food there only costs 50 cents, you have to take the train if you can't walk well.”

At first I didn't know what consequences these two controls would have for Gisa März. At fifty-fifty she went to Switzerland to attend a city guide meeting. She has been giving tours about life on the street for some time. She continues to go to the doctor, takes care of a dog, because that's who she is. March takes care of everyone: she takes care of her sister's daughter as if she were her own, she takes care of her ex-husband when she needs support. And now she also has a dog.

The Rheinbahn is interested in advertising

While Gisa März continues with her life, Rheinbahn, the local municipal transport company, is not standing idly by: it files a complaint. A year later, a court handed down its ruling. Six months in prison. It is not the first time that März has gone to jail, nor the first time for driving without a fine. But the last time was many years ago; Since then she has always had a ticket and the police have not noticed her.

Half a year in prison. That's a lot. If you have a dog that needs care. He has grandchildren who want to know what's going on with Grandma. I have to go to the doctor every day and pay rent. March is expelled from the drug substitution program and from her apartment. “Christmas, New Years and Carnival in prison are not so pleasant,” she says.

The fiftyfifty association organizes protests, addresses the Minister of Justice of North Rhine-Westphalia in an open letter, signed by celebrities and professors, including Breiti of the Toten Hosen and the satirist and EU parliamentarian Martin Sonneborn. The Minister of Justice responds that politics should not interfere with the judiciary. March remains in custody.

The city council is also aware of the issue. In November 2022 he will ask the supervisory board of Rheinbahn AG to stop filing complaints about “transport evasion”. But the company does not implement this. In June 2023, when Gisa März has already been released from prison, the left, the Greens, the SPD, the FDP and the climate faction of the PARTY in the town hall present their demands and, against the votes of the CDU and AfD, instruct the Rheinbahn will file criminal charges in the future to resign. At this time the transport company has to comply.

Other cities follow the path of Düsseldorf

He is not convinced of it. In response to a question from taz, a spokeswoman said: “The Rheinbahn loses approximately €4 million in revenue each year due to passengers without a valid ticket. “These costs must be offset by the community through tax dollars.” The advertisements are intended to have a deterrent effect.

The association of transport companies thinks the same. He defends himself against the plans of the Federal Ministry of Justice to reclassify fraudulent transportation from a crime to an administrative offense. “The idea of ​​no longer punishing fare evasion shows no respect for our performance and the work of our employees,” VDV president Ingo Wortmann said in response to a question from taz. The loss of income due to ticket evasion amounted to between 750 million and around one billion euros throughout the country. “This is no small thing: public transport is missing this enormous sum for staff, vehicles, infrastructure and security in already precarious times.”

But you can also look at it another way. Many lawyers, including prison administrators, have long called for the decriminalization of driving without a ticket. After Düsseldorf, Wiesbaden, the capital of the state of Hesse, made the decision in November 2023 to decriminalize driving without a fine. Münster followed in December. In March, Cologne decided not to press criminal charges. Halle did the same in early April.

Norbert Czerwinski, spokesman for the Düsseldorf Green Council group and traffic official, told TAZ: “Going to jail for evading paying the fare is totally disproportionate.” Czerwinski compares it to other violations: “If I rent a car and if I don't pay the rental fees, then the car rental company can demand the money and ultimately take me to court for it, but I won't go.” to prison for it.” This is how you should treat if someone doesn't pay for a ticket. “The Rheinbahn has nothing to gain if someone is in jail.”

The transport company has not yet noticed any effect of the new regulations. “Complaints are constant,” says a taz spokeswoman. However, after the end of the coronavirus pandemic, more inspectors were hired.

Gisa März walks slightly bent over and limps. A few weeks ago she fell and hurt her foot. She can walk, but slowly and with pain. It's a ten-minute walk from the club to the subway, which she depends on. But she no longer has to worry about the costs of daily train travel. She now has a 49 euro bill. “A nice lady donated the ticket to me,” she says.

March has to go on probation, every two weeks. The office is located in a simple house in Düsseldorf-Golzheim. There he has to deliver the results of a daily drug test. Today is positive: the stress with the foot, I needed something. “But I don't use heroin anymore,” he says. In prison he suddenly stopped being one and daily visits to the doctor are a thing of the past.

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