“Cells……♫ cells for ♪ sale, or rent ♫

….♫ rooms to ♪ let, 50 cents ♫.”

The New York Times ran a story in late February under Dan Bilefsky’s byline which began, “The Netherlands has a problem many countries can only dream of: A shortage of prison inmates.”

About a third of Dutch prison cells are empty, attributed to a ‘spectacular’ drop in crime over the last twenty years, and a national preference for rehabilitation over incarceration. There was a upswing in prison populations there in the 90s, but the Netherlands now imprisons only about 61 of every 100,000 citizens, similar to Scandinavia. The United States, on the other hand, puts about 666 of every 100,000 citizens in prison, the highest in the world.

Norway negotiated an agreement with the Dutch two years ago for a three-year lease of a high-security facility and sent 242 prisoners there. They’re paying $35 million per year for the use of this prison, and Belgium is also making use of Dutch jails, sending about 500 inmates across the border.

Even more cells will become surplus over the next few years. As one criminologist explained, the Dutch have a deeply ingrained pragmatism when it comes to regulating law and order. “Prisons are very expensive,” this professor at Erasmus School of Law in Rotterdam rationalized. There is a relatively liberal approach to soft drugs and prostitution, and the Netherlands is more focused on what works and what is effective, while people in the United States, for instance, make moral arguments for imprisonment.

The Dutch have also become creative with the vacancy rates by transforming jails into housing for asylum seekers, converting cells into apartments for families, and where the interior exercise yards, gymnasiums, kitchens and outdoor gardens have a practical benefit. High exterior walls and barbed wire are removed, but care is taken not to house former political prisoners in cells, unless they feel at ease.

Not everyone is happy. About 2,600 prison guards could lose their jobs in the next four years as more prisons close. The government doesn’t want to give up too many jobs, as this political football can play out to the disadvantage of the present centre-right party in control. As a spokesperson for the country’s Ministry of Security and Justice put it, the surplus of empty jail cells is “good and bad news at the same time.”

This isn’t an environment that’s generated in a vacuum, with no explanation, or can be simply written off to happenstance. This comes with a concerted effort to question the status quo, think outside the lock-em-up box, and take bold steps to take a different road. Separating some people from the community in a custodial setting will continue to be a reality for now, but there is an illogic to a prison-based system of justice. One perspective is in the form of a poem reprinted in Baz Dreisinger’s book, “Incarceration Nation”:-

We want them to be responsible,
So we take away all responsibilities.
We want them to be positive and constructive,
So we degrade them and make them useless.
We want them to be nonviolent,
So we put them where there is violence all around them.
We want them to quit being the tough guy,
So we put them where the tough guy’s respected.

Now, that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it!

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