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Locked up on an idyllic island

Looking for new ways of punishment

Text: Roos Metselaar

Image: Lucca de Ruiter

‘It’s just like a hotel’, is an often heard statement when discussing Dutch prisons. In 2016, Tim Engelbart, deputy editor-in-chief of the right-wing blog De Dagelijkse Standaard predicted a future in which inmates would be allowed to undergo a relaxing weekly spa pedicure while sipping on a pina colada. Engelbart depicts it as a doomsday scenario, but turning the prison into a hotel might not even be such a crazy idea.

When Dutch criminologists talk about preventing crime, ‘the three W’s’ are often brought to the front: woning (home), werk (job) and wijf (woman). These three factors are seen as the most important in preventing crime. Knowing this, the results of research by PhD student in criminology Maaike Wensveen are even more shocking: one out of three ex-inmates gets confronted with homelesness. Other researchers address among others financial problems and loss of social contacts. So, the other two W’s also aren’t safe. All because of imprisonment.

With these facts in mind, the Dutch recidivism statistics aren’t even thát shocking: 47% of the ex-inmates reoffenses within two years after leaving the prison. The contrast with people who have been sentenced to ‘terbeschikkingstelling’ (tbs), a punishment focused on treatment, is huge: according to TBS Nederland less than 30% of them commits a major crime within five years. Despite this difference in recidivism, the tbs-clinic is often associated with ‘dangerous lunatics’. After all, to get this sentence, you first have to be declared ‘insane’, by using an insanity plea. ‘Regular criminals’, on the other hand, should be punished with severe penalties for not wanting to abide by society's rules. This way of thinking often leads to a prison sentence, and the more austere the prison, the better. However, in practice, incarceration seems to worsen the problem rather than bear fruit.

To the cinema with a murderer

Inmates and guards enjoying a nice barbecue around a campfire, a prison band named ‘Criminal Records’, a beautiful green landscape and rooms with underfloor heating and a private bathroom; it seems to be a fantasy world, but in the town Halden, just a few hours drive from Oslo, it is reality. The prison has among others a huge gym with a climbing wall and kitchens in which the prisoners can cook their own meals. The same kind of peculiar prison can be found on the Norwegian island Bastøy. There, inmates and guards all go to the cinema together or ski down a slope. Most people will feel a bit uncomfortable reading this story. Have the Norwegians forgotten that criminals are supposed to be punished?

The answer to this question depends on the purpose that we attribute to punishment. In Dutch politics, the trend is to see incarceration as a good way to teach criminals a lesson and at the same time prevent crime. In January 2021, the liberal party VVD for example called for a ‘community service prohibition’ for violence against private security guards and journalists. VVD member of parliament Jeroen van Wijngaarden explained: ‘When thugs attack our aid workers, security guards or journalists, only one type of punishment is fitting and that is imprisonment.’ The underlying thought is clear: imprisonment is the most severe punishment and should be applied in this case. Next to that, in recent years, a lot of maximum penalties were sharpened. The sentence for reckless driving was for example tripled. Thus, long prison sentences seem to be a modern development, but in reality it is based on an outdated idea about punishment.

When long-term incarceration started to gain popularity in the nineteenth century, the most important motivation was to punish the mind instead of the body, as was the case with corporal punishment. The cellular system that came about, consisted of solitary confinement, whereby every form of communication between prisoners was forbidden and inmates even had to wear ‘cell caps’ when leaving their prison cell. Of course, this had huge effects on the mental state of the prisoners, but only after the Second World War politicians recognized that something had to change; Dutch people that had been imprisoned by Nazi-Germany, sounded the alarm bells. In 1953, rehabilitation was officially laid down in law, which had the practical consequence that punishment should be connected to a possible return to society. A couple things changed: inmates were for example allowed to keep in touch with people outside of the prison, schooling became possible and more professional aid workers were hired to work in prisons. However, the present-day politicians don’t seem to have kept pace with these positive developments. They hang on to a prewar system focused on penance.

Mentor instead of guard

The current tendency to impose high penalties is the result of the belief that punishment is a goal in itself. After all, the convict has to ‘learn a lesson’, or as they said in the nineteenth century: ‘do penance’. The legal system would look very different when it would be focused on a more valuable goal: preventing future crime. In an episode of the Flemish tv-show Nachtwacht from February 2020 philosopher Farah Focquaert argues that prison terms currently mostly lead to a decrease in the resources that inmates need to live a crime-free life in the future. Family life, working life ánd the position in society are disrupted, while tools should be provided for improvement. Therefore, she advocates to only use imprisonment as a stopgap, and instead focus on alternative penalties and guidance of inmates.

Of course, there are some convicts for whom incarceration is necessary because of the risk they pose to society. In that case, the ‘idyllic’ prisons in Halden and Bastøy are an example of a functioning strategy. In these prisons, inmates have to work and keep up with social contacts and they also get training and educational courses. In short: everything is about preparing the convicts for a life outside of the prison. Accordingly, Are Høidal, an employee at Halden doesn’t call himself a ‘guard’ but a ‘mentor’. And while this policy may seem ‘soft’, it has an important outcome: only 16% of the ex-inmates of Balstøy commits recidivism. Right-wing politicians will be shocked when you tell them, but in reality a prison works more effectively when it provides the inmates with more services. The more fun the prison, the smaller the chance that a convict comes back again.

Obviously, the inmates in Halden and Balstøy aren’t goofing off all day. The image of swimming, relaxing and sleeping inmates is misleading. In reality, the strong point of these prisons is exactly the fact that prisoners don’t have to fill their own time. They get help to solve their problems and resources are provided to get to work. The Dutch legal system could learn some lessons from it. When imposing a penalty, the focus should be on providing opportunities and chances, instead of increasing limitations.

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