A while ago, a friend of a friend stayed with me for a couple of days. She came from California and was looking for job opportunities in the Netherlands. Why did she come to the Netherlands, I asked her. Because of the prison system, she told me. She had heard it was the country with the most humane prison climate in the world. Restorative justice and resocialisation programmes, absence of gang culture, good prisoner-guard relationships, low rates of violence, education programmes; compared to the stories about American prison it sounded like heaven. Is this true? Is the Dutch prison system all about rehabilitation of its prisoners?
Firstly, my American visitor was not wrong. Having visited a Belgian prison in 2014, I asked the prisoners what they thought of the Dutch system compared to the Belgian one. Many of them experienced both as the Netherlands has been renting out its cells to other countries due to a continuously decreasing incarceration rate. Comparing the prisons myself with my limited experience, the prisoners agreed with me: they preferred the Dutch system to the Belgian one.
And their preference was based on reasons that all related to the Dutch penal paradigm of rehabilitation: using the time in prison to recover and prepare for a structured live in society. The Belgians praised the working opportunities (long hours and available for everyone), social programmes (many and every day), leave (contact with family remains) and the contact with the guards (first name basis thus no dehumanisation).
But Holland’s current government has set in important changes to this positive prison climate. In 2013, the Dutch Ministry of Justice presented a so-called ‘masterplan’ that aims at reforming the current prison system. In the aftermath of an economic crisis, prisons had to become more efficient and punishment more sober. This report has determined the penal climate over the past four years and its aims are summed up as follows:
Less work: less hours a day and only after 8 weeks of imprisonment;
More activities inside the cell through electronic devices: substituting the library with an iPad;
Increase self-reliance of prison guards: less guards on more prisoners;
Two prisoners to a call: for 50% to 100% of the prisoners, plus the construction of 4, 6 and 8-person cells;
No social programmes during the weekend;
No leave at the end of a sentence: leave will be substituted by wearing an electronic device.
All the features that were mentioned by my American visitor and the Belgian inmates are now subject to efficiency cuts. The exceptional Dutch penal paradigm aimed at rehabilitation, is being replaced by a political believe in sober punishment. The prison system has gone back in time to the punishment paradigm described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish, where the sole purpose of exclusion is to punish the criminal. This approach is not only dehumanising but also ineffective. I still have to find a criminological study that showed how punishment for the aim of punishment helped deter crime and prevent recidivism. But I keep looking! And in the mean time I will agree with my American visitor, but with an important ‘but’.