No peeking at the prisoners
8 April 2006 – Twelve thousand
people today took the opportunity to take a look inside a prison.
Critics warned against ‘peeking at the prisoners’, but
this was hardly the case at the Detention House at the Havenstraat
Some people see prisons as hotels, said the unit manager at the
reception, while others see them as the place were sadists and racists
do their work. Not surprisingly, the goal of inviting the public
to take a look inside the prisons was to “show that both images
In advance, prisoner rights organisation EORG had announced that
it would protest with megaphones at the gates. “The people
inside, and they are the ones who count for EORG, do not like it
at all, they sometimes call it ‘peeking at the prisoners’,
the small amount of privacy that they still have is being compromised
by [Justice Minister] Donner in this way”.
Incidentally, organisations such as Bonjo (a platform of organisations
for detainees, former detainees and their families) and the Anarchist
Group Amsterdam (AGA) are less outspoken on the open days. They
think there are positive aspects to them as well.
In any case, there were no protesters at the gate of the Havenstraat
this morning. The unit manager emphasised that the visit should
not degenerate into peeking at the prisoners. We were urged not
to draw the curtains at the hatches of the cell doors.
During the tour, hardly a prisoner was to be seen. The exception
consisted of some men in prison shirts, loading loafs of bread on
carts. “They do not mind us coming to take a look”,
said the jailor who was showing us around.
Today she did not have to wear a uniform, which normally she does.
“When a large fight breaks out, it is important to be able
to see instantly who the jailors are. As a woman you are identifiable
as a jailor in any case, since all the prisoners here are men”.
The Havenstraat House of Detention is more than 130 years old and
a monument. “Only toilets have been built in the cells, for
the rest the inside is still in its original condition”, the
unit manager said.
In total, the facility has room for 224 prisoners. While Dutch
prisoners still typically have their own cell, 26 cells are to be
used by two prisoners each. At present, half the institution is
being transformed into a department for repeat offenders. Homeless
people and drug addicts who have stolen one milk carton or bicycle
too many, can be put away there for two years.
The cells are small, especially if you take into account that some
of them have been converted into two-person cells by replacing the
beds with bunk beds. The room is so narrow, that you can hardly
avoid each other. At four pm, the prisoners get a thermos of tea
or coffee, after which the door is locked.
During the day as well, they are locked up in principle, unless
for example they are doing labour. The regime is somewhat stricter
than in a normal prison. This has to do with the Havenstraat being
a House of Detention, where prisoners tend to stay for a relatively
short time. As soon as a final judgement has been passed, they move
to a regular prison.
The tour included the isolation cells, the cage where punished
prisoners get their one hour of fresh air, the kitchen and the workshop
where the prisoners assemble striplight fittings or cups. At the
end, a demonstration was given by the internal assistance team,
which has been created specifically to clear the new two-person
The jailors, dressed in riot gear, attacked two of their colleagues,
who were acting as recalcitrant prisoners. This involved quite a
struggle and an occasional strike with the baton. “It may
seem a bit chaotic, but they operate according to a fixed plan”,
the trainer said.
He also said that the team has only once found itself in a situation
in which some violence had to be administered. “Their fame
precedes them. When the prisoners see a man wearing a helmet standing
in front of the cell door, they almost always choose to cooperate.
And that is a wise decision”.
Last week, an inspection report was published, which gives a positive
judgement of how the Havenstraat jailors do their job. In general,
the conditions in the prison system are less positive. The number
of cells has grown very rapidly, and as a result of cutbacks, serious
Background: Abuses behind bars