Abuses behind bars
8 April 2006 – The jailors at the Havenstraat
prison do their best, but the prison system is under increasing
pressures. Sometimes, serious abuse occurs. Causes include the explosive
growth of the number of cells, budget cutbacks, and the deployment
of jailors without adequate training. Meanwhile, private companies
are eager to take over the business.
The Havenstraat jailors treat the prisoners in a courteous and
professional manner, says an inspection report that was published
last week. This is quite a contrast with the picture that was recently
painted by Vrij Nederland magazine of the prison boat in Rotterdam.
Here, undertrained Securicor security guards intimidate the prisoners,
while having no idea what to do when fire breaks out.
While the Havenstraat and the prison boat are apparently far apart,
there are similarities as well. Both have to cope with a government
that builds more and more cells, while simultaneously cutting the
budgets for running the prisons. As a consequence, conditions are
becoming increasingly Spartan.
According to the inspection report, the Havenstraat jailors do
a good job, but their work is made difficult by the austere regime
introduced by the Justice Department. Prisoners are no longer allowed
out of their cells in the evening. Because of staff shortages, they
sometimes cannot participate in labour and education activities,
while visits to the library are at times not possible either.
The report says that this situation entails ‘security risks’.
Since the time for talking with prisoners is increasingly limited,
it becomes more difficult to deal with tensions. Further, due to
the lower intensity of their contacts with prisoners, it becomes
more difficult to assess the state of mind of a prisoner.
The background of the austerity is the increasing pressure on the
Dutch prison system. Traditionally, the Netherlands has the reputation
of humane punishment and putting few people behind bars, but this
is something of the past. In 1980 there were less than four thousand
detainees in the Netherlands, by now there are more than fifteen
thousand. After the UK and Spain, the Netherlands is the Western
European country with the highest share of the population behind
bars. Meanwhile, budgets for activities, education and resocialisation
are being cut.
One of the consequences of this austerity is that prisoners get
to spend less time outside their cells. Job Arnold of Bonjo (a platform
of organisations for detainees, former detainees and their families):
“This is not appreciated at all. People are locked in their
cells from five pm to eight am. One of the consequences is that
it becomes much more difficult to speak to your family on the telephone”.
Another innovation is that it is now possible to put two prisoners
in one cell, in order to bring down the cost of detention. In Lelystad
a prison is being built where cells will be shared by six prisoners.
Arnold: “This is quite a surprise, that people tend to like
the two people in one cell regime. Of course, you must not put Armenians
and Turks in the same cell, or smokers and non-smokers. But these
sorts of things tend to be taken into account now. On occasion,
things still go wrong, but actually there are no more problems than
in the old situation. All in all, things have not turned out all
On other terrains, however, there is reason for concern. One year
ago, the Nova television show revealed a secret report of the Justice
Department, showing that violence, intimidation and discrimination
frequently occur in the prisons. A quarter of the jailors have been
injured as a result of violence, and four percent suffered serious
The report ascribes the violent and aggressive atmosphere in the
prisons to the low education of prison staff, among other things.
In addition, jailors often have social problems, such as debts,
divorces or past experiences of incest.
Although Parliament urged the minister to publish the secret report,
he refused to do so. Publication of the report would only further
upset prison staff, and thus hinder its self-corrective capacity,
the minister thought.
The recent inspection report shows that there is nothing wrong
with the self-corrective capacity of the jailors at the Havenstraat.
What is lacking is a systematic management approach to prevent jailors
making errors and to correct them if necessary. This entails the
risk that abuses in separate teams remain unnoticed, the researchers
An important development within the prison system is the growing
role of private companies. Bonjo’s Job Arnold: “In the
past, prisons were largely self-catering; the beans were grown by
the prisoners in the prison’s own garden, so to speak. This
is definitely something of the past. All kinds of services are contracted
out to private companies”.
“Only the prison shops are still a monopoly, while here a
bit more competition might be quite healthy. As a manner of speaking,
the shop owner might be the prison director’s brother-in-law.
Not surprisingly, prices are much higher than at the Albert Heijn,
which is not the cheapest supermarket anyway. While prisoners only
get 12.80 euro per week for their labour”.
In the special prisons for illegal aliens and for drugs traffickers,
Securicor guards are deployed as jailor. At first, the company employed
underqualified agency workers, but after protests Securicor promised
to mend its ways. However, the recent Vrij Nederland story showed
that the staff at the Rotterdam prison boat is still below standard.
Bonjo’s Stan Witte has his doubts regarding the role of private
security guards: “This is something that happens more and
more, and frequently leads to conflicts. Do not get me wrong, there
are a lot of lovely people among them. But a jailor needs a proper
training, and they do not have that. There are pain in the asses
among the jailors of the Justice Department, but Securicor has far
more of them. It almost seems as if they purposely select that kind
Herre de Vries of the Anarchist Group Amsterdam also has his doubts:
“A Securicor guard need not be more of a pain in the ass than
a regular one. However, their preparation for the situation in prison
is less thorough. Which may in some cases be an advantage, for we
do not know what they teach regular jailors. A friend of mine recently
told me that at the new cell block in the Bijlmer, the Securicor
guards were more humane than the regular ones. He was doing time
with two Italians, who knew that the prison boats in Rotterdam are
really the gate of hell. Securicor is there as well”.
Meanwhile, Securicor is eager to expand its role in the prison
system. In South Wales, the company already does the entire management
of a prison. When Parliament made a study trip to the UK last year,
Securicor convinced the delegation to meet the management of this
prison as well.
Securicor spokesperson Jeroen van der Poel at that time was quoted
by Ravage magazine, denying that the company was trying to influence
decision-making. “It is not up to us to say whether private
companies are given a larger role, this is up to the politicians.
But in case they would take this direction, I think we would be
able to act on that fast and effectively”.
Incidentally, critical reports have been published on the Securicor
jail in South Wales. Personnel management would be deficient, and
management would not be doing enough to deal with racism.
See also: No peeking at the prisoners