Master plan or Monstrous plan?

Master plan or Monstrous plan?

The Netherlands is internationally known for its reasonably humane prison conditions. It remains to be seen, to what extent this image still holds after the implementation of the recently presented “Masterplan Department of Correctional Institutions".

As a criminologist and legal scholar I have always been more than averagely interested in the correctional system. Although I am not an expert in this field, a recent – professional – visit to San Quentin State Penitentiary in California inspired me to write this blog about the currently debated reorganisations in this field in the Netherlands. In the so-called “Masterplan Department of Correctional Institutions” the Secretary of State for Security and Justice announces several measures that are aimed to further tighten the prison regime and its conditions in order to save the government about roughly €340 million. Whereas the plan is presented as a necessary and almost positive step in a series of budget cuts previously announced by the government, experts are very concerned about its implications.

Some “highlights” of the Masterplan

As a result of the Masterplan, more than half of the inmates (about 5,712 individuals) will have to share their cell, without significant changes being made to the structure and outline of their cells. Inmates will be screened for their eligibility to share a cell, with the nature of their crime and mental or behavioural problems as important counter-indications. A large part of the inmate population (4,100 individuals) will also have to spend more time in their closed cells – 20 hours a day – with very limited possibilities for exercise or other activities. This is referred to as the “sober” standard prison regime: Spending as little time and money as possible on the inmates, by limiting their movement and activities. On top of this the programmes designed and aimed to gradually prepare an inmate for his or her release back into society are being terminated and replaced by electronic monitoring for those who qualify for this alternative. Yet, the electronic monitoring would not be embedded in a reintegration/re-entry oriented programme. This basically means that the ankle bracelet only serves the purpose to monitor the inmate’s whereabouts instead of actually enabling him or her to positively benefit from their relative freedom of movement. All in all, the various reforms that have been announced seem to indicate a new – harsher - phase in Dutch corrections.

“Mister Congressman, why can’t you understand?”

Looking at the proposed reorganisations, Johnny Cash’s lyrics on San Quentin automatically spring to mind again. It seems hard to believe that the government truly thinks that these changes won’t have a negative effect upon the individual resocialisation of inmates and – as a result – not on recidivism rates as well? As previously mentioned in another blog post on the Leiden Law Blog as well as in many studies, the effects of incarceration can be devastating. With collective safety and security still being important spearheads of public and political debate, it seems fair to say that the proposed changes might benefit from some further reconsideration. In doing so, especially the effects of all this on the long haul need to be taken into account: both the effects for the individual inmate and society as a whole. Thinking in advance about possible consequences and negative side-effects of new policies and regulatory changes – despite the often easily accessible broad international research in many policy areas – is often not what politicians and policy makers are best known for. The same holds true for drawing lessons from overseas developments, especially if these lessons are not in tune with the government’s current “Tough on Crime” perspective.

This brings us back to San Quentin. Despite being one of America’s most notorious prisons in terms of its population and having the largest death row in the United States, the prison is also known for its focus on rehabilitation. This may sound like a contradiction, but with programmes ranging from anger management training, to training in journalism through the production of an in-prison newspaper and even a university programme, inmates are given a chance to better prepare themselves for their release, or – if they will be inside for life – to at least occupy their minds. It is hard to imagine what Dutch inmates will do to occupy their minds once the announced reforms are implemented.

1 Comment

Max Harmreduction

Government failure to consider very negative side-effects from any changes they make to policy and law applies beyond prisons. The constant reduction of coffeeshop numbers since 1995, and the reported increase in (heroin?) fatal overdoses from about 40 to about 150, by 2009 is another example. Protection of the public health and welfare needs to be the priority - and changes should never damaging it.

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