Too many empty cells

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By 2017-10-11

By Michael Gregson

The Dutch have a problem that many countries would envy: a shortage of prisoners.

While countries like Britain, Italy, the United States, and Venezuela have tried to grapple with prison overcrowding, the Netherlands has such a surplus of unused cells that it has rented some of its prisons to Belgium and Norway.

It has also turned about a dozen former prisons into centres for asylum seekers.

About a third of Dutch prison cells sit empty, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Criminologists attribute this to a spectacular fall in crime over the past two decades and an approach to law enforcement that favours rehabilitation over incarceration.

"The Dutch have a deeply ingrained pragmatism when it comes to regulating law and order," said René van Swaaningen, Professor of Criminology at Erasmus School of Law in Rotterdam. He points out that the country has a relatively liberal approach to so-called 'soft' drugs and prostitution.

"Prisons are very expensive. Unlike the United States, where people tend to focus on the moral arguments for imprisonment, the Netherlands is more focused on what works and what is effective," added the Professor.

Recorded crime in the Netherlands has fallen by around a quarter over the past ten years, according to the country's National Statistics Office. That is expected to translate into a surplus of 3,000 prison cells by 2021. The government has closed a third of its prisons over the past three years and a government report leaked last year suggests more cuts are on the way.

The relative shortage of prisoners has spurred the Dutch to be creative.

At jails transformed into housing for asylum seekers, former cells for prisoners have been converted into apartments for families, though some still have the original cell doors. At De Koepel, a former prison in Haarlem, refugees play football in a large interior courtyard. Some of the converted jails also have gymnasiums, kitchen facilities, and outdoor gardens.


To make refugees feel more at home at a former prison in Hoogeveen, in the northeast of the country, the authorities removed the high exterior walls and barbed wire and refitted the former cell doors so that they could open from the inside. Jan Anholts, a spokesman for the Dutch Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, said the agency took special care not to house former political prisoners in cells, unless they felt at ease. "We want people to feel safe and secure," he said.

At a time of austerity, the Dutch Government has also been able to raise money by outsourcing empty prisons to countries with overpopulated jails.

Two years ago, Norway agreed to pay the Netherlands $30 million to hold 242 Norwegian prisoners at the high security Norgerhaven Prison. Belgium has also sent the Dutch about 500 prisoners.

At Norgerhaven, where prisoners raise chickens and grow vegetables, Norwegian convicts live under the watchful eye of a Norwegian prison superintendent and Dutch guards.

To make room for the Norwegians, long-term Dutch convicts, who make up an exclusive club in a country with only 35 adults serving life sentences, were relocated from comfortable cells, equipped with work spaces and televisions. None too pleased, they filed a lawsuit, but did not succeed in blocking the move.

Drop in crime

Criminologists say that, beyond a drop in crime, the oversupply of prisons is down to a building spree by the Netherlands in the 1990s that resulted in a glut of jails as crime decreased and the country's population aged.

The Dutch situation is in sharp contrast with Sri Lanka, where the the prison population stands at around 17,000–including more than a thousand on death row.

In a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, spoke about the appalling conditions within Sri Lankan prisons and made several recommendations.

The UN official who visited the island last year, made a series of recommendations. These include: reducing overcrowding, more modern prison facilities, and accelerating the judicial process.

The report also called for alternatives for imprisonment, such as electronic surveillance for defendants awaiting trial and non-custodial sentences for non-violent offenders and juveniles. In fact, many of the measures are already in use by the Dutch, which has allowed them to empty their jails.



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