Vacant possession

Prisons for rent

How the Netherlands is emptying its jails

Text: Johannes Böhme
Photos: Judith Jockel

Sebastian Vos is not due to be released for another eight days but he has already started packing, stuffing his clothes into a large plastic bag on the floor of his cell. Next week, the 36-year-old will leave Leeuwarden prison in the north of the Netherlands. He will walk through the metal detector at the exit, past the photograph of the Dutch king and queen, and across the car park to where his mother will be waiting. He will have spent 11 months behind bars.

He is one of the few people still being sent to prison in the Netherlands. “I thought it was rather a short sentence, considering what I had done,” he says. “After all, it’s not the first time I’ve been in here.” We are not allowed to reveal his real name, nor his crime. Those were the conditions the prison set for this interview. What we can say is that Vos interpreted the country’s gun laws rather loosely; so casually, in fact, that in 2016 a special police squad turned up at this home in the middle of the night, with machine guns, bulletproof vests and a battering ram. The laser pointers on their guns danced around the walls as they took aim through the windows and they led him away with a cloth bag over his head.

Vos was 17 when he was jailed for the first time, for drug offences. Since then, the Dutch criminal justice system has changed more radically than any other in the western world. Until the 1990s, the Netherlands favoured deterrence and took a tough stance with offenders – as did Britain, France and especially the USA. The Dutch prison population almost trebled between 1990 and 2005. Then, however, the Netherlands managed to do something no other western country has achieved: it reversed the global trend of locking up ever greater numbers of people.


The inmates have keys to their own cells, though not to the isolation cell. Sebastian Vos just before his release

Fewer punishments, more incentives

Between 2005 and 2015 prisoner numbers fell by more tah 20% in the Netherlands. In 2005, the country had 125 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest percentages in the European Union. Sweden, by comparison, had 78 per 100,000. Today, the Netherlands only has 69 prison inmates per 100,000 inhabitants, fewer than Germany (78) and far fewer than the US (698), Britain (148) and France (95).

Whereas prisons in Germany, France and Britain are full, the Netherlands has closed 19 out of its 85 prisons in recent years, because they had spare capacity. Germany had built too few, the Netherlands too many. With typical pragmatism, the Dutch turned their surplus prisons into hotels, offices for start-ups, adventure playgrounds and refugee accommodation. Two were rented out to Norway and Belgium, which had too few prisons.
Peter van der Laan, 62, is a professor at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement in Amsterdam, and an adviser to the Dutch government and parliament. He was involved in the new jails programme from the start. In the late 1990s, he was working at the security and justice ministry’s research and documentation centre (WODC). It is extraordinarily well equipped for a relatively small country: about twice the size of the forensic institute run by Germany’s federal criminal police bureau. The people at WODC wanted to create an entirely new kind of prison system.

Among other things, they had been studying research led by the British psychologist James McGuire. In 1995, McGuire, a professor of forensic clinical psychology at Liverpool University, reviewed several hundred studies and concluded that punishment was not working and that prison sentences actually increased the likelihood of criminals going on to commit further crimes. Prison sentences were counterproductive – at least without additional measures. Sebastian Vos is a good example of this: he was considered a habitual offender, someone who would keep returning to prison because the underlying problems that had turned him into a criminal were not being addressed.

According to McGuire, better results could be achieved through probationary services and prison guards functioning more as social workers. In other words, less punishment and more incentives. “What Works was tremendously influential in the Netherlands,” says Van der Laan, “especially because the research was incredibly useful. Politically, it could be implemented immediately.” And that is what happened. Newly introduced rules have made it easier for judges to suspend sentences or convert them to community service, often with additional requirements such as electronic tagging, payment of compensation to victims or agreeing to undergo therapy.

As many offenders are sentenced to community service as sent to prison now –about 35,000 a year. On top of this, most Dutch prison sentences are very short: 60% are for less than a month. In the past 10 years, the crime rate has dropped by a percentage point annually. All this has meant that prisons in the Netherlands are now emptier than those in Germany or France.

The Dutch like the new approach. Van der Laan reports that the scheme was welcomed “almost enthusiastically” by the public. “People’s attitude was that this way the criminals were at least doing something useful.” Other criminologists, however, feel that the reforms do not yet go far enough. René van Swaaningen of Erasmus University in Rotterdam believes purely punitive measures, such as electronic tags, are too often imposed without any attempt at resocialising offenders. That is not enough, he says, because “while you may be closing down prisons, you are turning society itself into a prison.”

Those who are still doing time in prison are a difficult group, and hard to get through to; 30% are back behind bars within two years. Often they are drug addicts (60%) or mentally ill (also about 60%), and 30% are considered to have some mental disabilities.

The judiciary now focuses more attention on this group and is hoping to get Vos back on the right path, too. During the final months of his sentence Vos’s behaviour was exemplary, apart from one fight. He carried out his duties, cleaned, did woodwork, did not take or deal drugs, and he has just received his forklift truck driver’s licence. He also insists that he did not start the fight.
He has been helped on the way to this new life by Jim Nijdam, a chiselled giant of 53 with a piercing gaze and shaved head. Nijdam looks after 36 inmates in Leeuwarden prison. As he walks the corridors, he curses and laughs, grins and cracks jokes. He doesn’t mind gruffness. He shares his wing with a female colleague: “She gets the cry-babies, I get the psychos. I can’t bear whingers.”


The boss: Anna Nijstad, governor of Leeuwarden prison

Social workers, not warders

Nijdam’s tough exterior is deceptive: he approaches his job very differently from the way things used to be done in the Netherlands 20 years ago – and how they still are done in many other countries. “We no longer play cowboys and Indians here. This is not a game in which we are constantly searching cells for drugs and bootleg alcohol. We actually work on the problems that these guys are facing: 95% of them had a really lousy childhood, and I want them to open up to me. Unfortunately, there is often not enough time for this, but at least we’ve tried. We are social workers here rather than prison guards.”

Nijdam ensures that new arrivals make a number of phone calls during their critical first 48 hours behind bars – to their employers, their landlords, their partners and children – to maintain links with their life outside. This is another of the insights revealed by the research: the first days in prison are particularly important for an inmate’s future development.


View of the outside world: an isolation cell

If you have something to lose, you try harder

Anna Nijstad, the governor of Leeuwarden prison, wants to soften the contrast between life inside and outside the prison walls. She wants prisoners to remain as independent as possible; getting themselves up in the morning, for example, walking the 200 metres to the carpentry workshop alone, and bringing themselves back again after work. They are allowed to operate forklift trucks and circular saws, and use knives in the kitchen. They even have keys, so they can lock their own cells.

The head of the Dutch prison authorities, Monique Schippers, calls it a “person-centred approach”. She says: “The prisoners are meant to learn that it is up to them whether or not they fall back into crime. They must take responsibility for themselves.” In other words, taking control of your life in a place controlled by other people.
And it works, at least for some inmates. Nijdam doesn’t go in for rose-tinted glasses, but he is cautiously optimistic about Vos. “I’ve been watching him from the beginning. When he first arrived, he was very frenetic. That has got much better.” During his first weeks in prison Vos was prescribed treatment for his hyperactivity – for the first time in his life. It was a minor measure but effective. Previously, Vos had often felt overwhelmed by his own thoughts. “I find that the medication helps calm the turmoil in my head,” he says. “I am still restless, but before I took it I used to do 10 things at once.”

Scientists distinguish between static and dynamic influences that turn someone into a criminal. The static ones cannot be changed. Foremost of these is personal history: if someone has had a terrible childhood, this cannot be undone. But other things can be changed. Drug addiction can be overcome. Debts can be renegotiated, and repaid with the help of a job. Homeless people can be rehoused. Attitudes can also be changed and, though difficult, new friends can be made. In Leeuwarden, Nijdam and his colleagues are concentrating on the dynamic factors: a flat, a job, mental health and addiction.

The hardest part is often getting prisoners to admit they have a problem. Nijdam asked Vos to write down his story, his problems, everything that had brought him here. At some point, says Vos, the penny dropped: “I didn’t really believe in all that nonsense about growing wiser with age. But I have changed. Suddenly, I realise how much I have to lose.”

While he was in prison, Vos carried on paying the rent on his flat from his savings, so he would have a home to go back to. And he already has a job, although it is part of his sentence: to work on a farm for three months. He is looking forward to it. He gets on well with animals.