Weeks before State Secretary Fred Teeven resigned, he made a deal with the Norwegian government to house 242 prisoners under Norwegian regime, in the Dutch penitentiary Norgerhaven. This decision has far-reaching consequences for the population residing in Norgerhaven, particularly those who anticipated staying there for decades to come: Prisoners currently serving a long-term, or a life sentence and who are housed in a specialized unit. They are not simply ‘tourists’ in prison, passing through the system. They are mostly there to stay for years to come.
They went to trial to fight the closure of their special unit in court. Last week, the court ruled that Teeven’s deal stands. However, the court made explicit that Mr Teeven was to offer a suitable alternative for this special population. This creates somewhat of a paradox, as Mr Teeven was also the one who promoted the creation of exclusive units for long-term prisoners nationwide. He is now destroying what he once created.
Life sentence in the Netherlands
The Netherlands currently incarcerates 37 lifers and a few hundred long-termers (sentenced to 10 years or more). Contrary to what you might hear at birthday parties, the Dutch life sentence is irreducible and concerns imprisonment until death. In almost all other European countries, prisoners are able to request parole after a set amount of time. Lifers thus lack any real prospect and hope of release. This issue is currently under high scrutiny in the western world, and has been declared inhumane by the European Court for the Human Rights. Furthermore, European soft law dictates that governments should to try to reduce the harmful effects of imprisonment. It remains questionable at best whether closing the special unit is in line with these aims.
Impact of long-term imprisonment
Research on the impact of long-term imprisonment suggests that the impact of imprisonment accumulates with the length of time spent in prison. Both lifers and long-termers differ greatly from short-termers in needs, experienced pains of imprisonment, mental health issues and coping strategies. This includes, for example, the continuous deprivation of autonomy and lack of meaning in life. Before 2012, both lifers and long-termers had the same rights and regimes as individuals going to prison for even a few days. For example, they were entitled to exactly the same cells and visiting hours and ‘free’ time. Given the length of their sentence, however, they are often denied participation in prison programmes aimed at re-entry. As a consequence of closing down the last special unit, they will now all return to regular units.
The Dutch State Secretary is struggling with what to do with people sentenced to life or long-term imprisonment. However, not being aware of the effects of incarceration, is not knowing whether intended goals are achieved – and if more harm is inflicted than can be accounted for. In the end, long-termers will also return to society, marked by whatever development or deterioration they experienced while in prison. This is good ground to question the current ambivalent criminal justice policy for this prisoner subgroup. New, evidence-based policy should aim to reduce the harmful effects of long-term confinement with a renewed focus on humane conditions and rehabilitation. Long-term and life-sentenced prisoners constitute a unique and neglected group within the prison population. Now that there is a change in authority, it couldn’t be a better moment to change the tide.