A snapshot into Dutch prisons

This month we are diving into the theme of Prison. I realised I didn’t know what prisons are actually like in the Netherlands, and how the prisons contributed to criminality, so I tried to find this out. It was quite hard to find the real deal with prisons. Mainly info on all the great looking reintegration programs and the amount of prisoners was easy to find. But I wonder, what is life like in a prison really? Does the prison even work to lower criminality rates?

The facts of Dutch prison conditions at a glance

I found it positive to find that Dutch prison conditions compared to those of many other countries seem much more humane. Some good things are that every prisoner has the same rights as non-prisoners (this is not everywhere the case which is so ridiculous!), such as having the right to vote, or not be harmed by guards. Activities are offered for at least 6 hours a week to prisoners, and every prison has a library, sport facilities, and worship spaces with freedom of religion (including Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist chaplains as well as a humanist counsellor visits). Health care units are located in every prison providing free (both physical and mental) health care. Though if a prisoner wants to see a specific self chosen doctor they do have to pay for it. Pregnant women are given special care and are able to give birth in a hospital. After giving birth the child can stay with the mom for nine months, and what happens after this time depends on the family situation I guess. Also, personal hygiene products (like soap, toothpaste, shaving products, menstruation pads) are provided by the prison. The prisoner’s cell is at least 10m2 – which is definitely small, but at least there is this minimum personal space – and has a bed (with clean bedding once a week), heating, lighting, and access to water.

Besides all these positive aspects of Dutch prisons – at least compared to many other countries – there are still quite some negative things to not forget. All non-retired prisoners must work, and for this compulsory labour of around 20 hours a week you get paid basically nothing. The wage is € 0,76 an hour, while the minimum hourly wage outside of prisons is €9,82. Food is provided 3 times a day, but this food does not meet nutritional standards and the prisoners have very often complained about both the quality and the amount of food they get. Having at least one hour a day to go outdoors is also sometimes mentioned as a positive aspect of Dutch prisons. But 1 hour a day? That sounds incredibly short if you ask me. Couldn’t really find if it’s more than this minimum time in practice though.. I would hope so. The outside place is furthermore not always that uplifting, by being fully concrete in quite some prisons in the country.

Trends and impact on criminality rates

Trends show that the amount of prisoners is going down in the Netherlands. There are currently 30 prisons in the country, while there used to be 59 less than ten years ago. This decrease seems positive, but actually happened because of budget cuts since 2013. While budget cuts sound like a bad incentive for closing prisons, rather than concerns over the prison industry or ethics, criminality did decrease over the last decade. The budget cuts on prisons did not seem to have a negative impact on criminality rates, as one might expect. If the shut down of prisons do not lead to higher criminality rates, are prisons really necessary? If people need to turn to criminal activities, the inequality that causes this need should better be tackled. I imagine that going to jail and losing social contacts and connection with the outside world not only makes you more depressed, angry, and/or lonely, but also makes you more vulnerable to having criminality as the only viable option to pay your bills once you get out. There are reintegration programs in Dutch prisons aiming to help with life after prison, but still 47% of ex-prisoners commit crime within two years after leaving prison. After another sentence, such as community service, the amount of recidivists is 34%. I think this illustrates well that prisons do not necessarily decrease criminality, but rather might increase it. Most importantly prisons do not address the structures that drive people into criminal acts in the first place. 

Though prisons seem more humane in NL than in many other countries, we should keep critical on the presence of prisons. If you like to discuss this further, join our bookclub night this Thursday 🙂 If you want to read more, this website gives very clear overviews of the main numbers and sometimes some background text on prisons throughout the whole world, which I have used a lot for this article. Also the Dutch podcast ‘Binnen de muren’ is recommended to hear the view from prisoners themselves.