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The Dutch prison crisis: A shortage of prisoners

Netherlands: Fewer than 10% then return to prison after their release.
Netherlands: Fewer than 10% return to prison after their release.
While the UK and much of the world struggles with overcrowded prisons, the Netherlands has the opposite problem. It is actually short of people to lock up. In the past few years 19 prisons have closed down and more are slated for closure next year. How has this happened - and why do some people think it's a problem?

The smell of fried onions wafts up the metal staircase, past the cell doors and along the wing. Down in the kitchen inmates are preparing their evening meal. One man, gripping a long serrated blade, is expertly chopping vegetables.

"I've had six years to practice so I am getting better!" he says.

It is noisy work because the knife is on a long steel chain attached to the worktop.

"They can't take that knife with them," says Jan Roelof van der Spoel, deputy governor of Norgerhaven, a high-security prison in the north-east of the Netherlands. "But they can borrow small kitchen knives if they hand in their passes so we know exactly who has what."

Some of these men are inside for violent offences and the thought of them walking around with knives might seem alarming. But learning to cook is just one of the ways the prison helps offenders to get back on track after their release.

"If somebody has a drug problem we treat their addiction, if they are aggressive we provide anger management, if they have got money problems we give them debt counselling. So we try to remove whatever it was that caused the crime. The inmate himself or herself must be willing to change but our method has been very effective. Over the last 10 years, our work has improved more and more."

He adds that some persistent offenders - known in the trade as "revolving-door criminals" - are eventually given two-year sentences and tailor-made rehabilitation programmes. Fewer than 10% then return to prison after their release. In England and Wales, and in the United States, roughly half of those serving short sentences reoffend within two years, and the figure is often higher for young adults.

Norgerhaven, along with Esserheem - another almost identical prison in the same village, Veenhuizen - have plenty of open space. Exercise yards the size of four football pitches feature oak trees, picnic tables and volleyball nets. Van der Spoel says the fresh air reduces stress levels for both inmates and staff. Detainees are allowed to walk unaccompanied to the library, to the clinic or to the canteen and this autonomy helps them to adapt to normal life after their sentence.

A decade ago the Netherlands had one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe, but it now claims one of the lowest - 57 people per 100,000 of the population, compared with 148 in England and Wales.

But better rehabilitation is not the only reason for the sharp decline in the Dutch prison population - from 14,468 in 2005 to 8,245 last year - a drop of 43%.

The peak in 2005 was partly due to improved screening at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, which resulted in an explosion in the numbers of drug mules caught carrying cocaine.

Today the police have new priorities, according to Pauline Schuyt, a criminal law professor from the southern city of Leiden. "They have shifted their focus away from drugs and now concentrate on fighting human trafficking and terrorism," she says.

In addition, Dutch judges often use alternatives to prison such as community service orders, fines and electronic tagging of offenders.

Angeline van Dijk, director of the prison service in the Netherlands, says jail is increasingly used for those who are too dangerous to release, or for vulnerable offenders who need the help available inside.

"Sometimes it is better for people to stay in their jobs, stay with their families and do the punishment in another way," she says from her brightly lit office at the top of a tower block in The Hague.

"We have shorter prison sentences and a decreasing crime rate here in the Netherlands so that is leading to empty cells."

But while recorded crime has shrunk by 25% over the past eight years, some argue that this results from the closure of police stations, as a result of budget cuts, which makes crime harder to report.

Other critics, such as Madeleine Van Toorenburg - a former prison governor and now the opposition Christian Democratic Appeal party's spokeswoman on criminal justice - blame the shortage of prisoners on low detection rates.

"The police are overwhelmed and can't handle their work load," she says. "And what is the government's response? Closing prisons. We find that surprising."

What is clear is that many of Angeline van Dijk's staff are not happy about the lack of people to lock up.

Click here to read the full article

Source: BBC News, Lucy Ash, November 10, 2016

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