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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 that bad”.

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 injuries.

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 say.

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 of people”.

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

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