Dutch Empty Cells: A Utopian Society?

Is Netherlands truly a utopian country with empty prison cells?

After years of struggle to have the so-called ‘perfect’ society, we may truly have discovered a utopian country: Netherlands.

Prison rates in the United States, United Kingdom, and various countries across Europe are faced with the influx of prisoners in jails. However, the Dutch has the opposite problem of having a lack of prisoners to fill up their jails.

Netherlands Cells for Asylum Seekers
Refugees wait in line to receive lunch. (dailymail.co.uk)

According to the Ministry of Justice, a third of Dutch prisons are currently empty while it predicts that there will be over 3,000 empty cells by 2021. This decline of jails is correlated with the rapid decline in the total number of inmates as it fell by 27% between 2011 and 2015. To put into perspective, while the US has about 666 prisoners per 100,00 citizens, Netherlands has 61, which is similar to the number in Scandinavia.

There are multiple causes for this phenomenon, including law enforcement and demographic changes.

One of the most common reasons for the decline is the novel approach that the Dutch takes in taking inmates; rather than incarcerating them for long periods of time, the government emphasizes rehabilitation, often giving certain freedom to inmates such as the right to visit the local library and canteen without supervision. By doing so, the government hopes to better support inmates when they assimilate back to their normal lives.

Netherlands Cells for Asylum Seekers
Afghan refugee plays piano in a prison cell (dailymail.co.uk)

The rise of the digital age is also attributed to this shift as technology has largely helped police officers better look over criminals. For example, in 2005, Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport was able to catch a larger number of drug mules who were carrying cocaine, greatly reducing the number. Netherlands have also recently employed the use of electronic tagging of offenders after they are released in order to minimize the possibility of them repeating crime acts.

Another reason for the declining criminal rates is the demographics of Dutch. Like Japan, Netherlands has a high population of the elderly who is less likely to commit a crime. In addition, according to Professor Swaaningen, the increasing dependence on technology such as computers have caused teenagers, who cause the most crime, to remain more indoors, precluding possibilities of their committing crimes on the streets.

Ages 40- 69 have the highest population density in 2014 (indexmundi.com)

The declining criminal and prison rates have made the government create solutions to use the empty cells.

Belgium and Norway have started to rent the unused cells in Netherlands by paying a certain amount of rent fees. According to a New York Times article, two years ago, Norway paid $27 million per year for a three-year contract in order to rent a prison. It also states that there is a “small waiting list” in Norway after it was advertised on a broadcasting system.

Similarly, over a dozen of prisons have been changed to used for asylum seekers this year, changing the settings of the cells into more modern day apartment style for families. De Koepel, a former prison in Haarlem, was renovated into a large soccer field for refugees while other areas have been changed to gymnasiums, kitchen facilities, and even outdoor gardens.

Netherlands Cells for Asylum Seekers
Migrants play football in the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem (dailymail.co.uk)

The use of empty prison cells for renting and asylum seekers have caused a decline of prison cells as well. In response, many workers have expressed concerns about this issue.

In a Telegraph article, a closer of 5 prisons this year is equivalent to 1,900 people being “ redundant.”

Although the empty cells may pacify the tension with the refugee crisis, many are expressing concerns about the detrimental effects of the phenomenon.

Frans Carbo, a representative of the FNV union, claims that many prison workers are “angry and depressed” because “there is no future in prisons anymore- you never know when your prison will be closed.” He further posits that young people would not join the prison service as time passes.

Netherlands Cells for Asylum Seekers
Afghan refugee are able to live normal lives like Hayatullah in prison cells (dailymail.co.uk)

Likewise, the concerns of Dutch prisons are escalated even further when it comes to the role of government. For instance, Dutch MP Nine Kooiman argues that it is the government’s lack of security that led them to deal with this situation. She maintains that “ if the government really worked at catching criminals,” there would be no empty cells.

Furthermore, Jaap Oosterveer, a spokesman for the Ministry of Security and Justice sums up the situation as a time of “good and bad news.”

Whether or not the empty cells in Dutch is a portrayal of a utopian society is yet to be debated as many officials are perturbed and unsettled by the issue. Nevertheless, whether or not there will be a detrimental effect on prison jobs should be closely examined as further prisons transition into homes for those in need.

—Sarah Se-Jung Oh (’19)








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