Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Going Dutch

  There is much to admire about the Norwegian penal system. Relatively few people are in prison, less than half per capita than in the UK.  Conditions are generally good, prisons small and in the case of the well-publicised Bastoy seemingly very comfortable. Staff are trained for three years and prisoners enjoy a resettlement guarantee which requires local welfare agencies to ensure they have a place to live, continuing health care and a work or training when they are released.

It comes as something of a surprise to learn that from next year, some Norwegian prisoners will be serving their sentences in the Netherlands. Renovation work in some of Norway’s 42 jails will bring down capacity from the 3,800 places currently available. With more than a thousand prisoners waiting in a queue to serve their sentence, ministers must have felt the need to make some emergency provision.

Prisoners serving their sentences in other states is common practice in the USA. Many of Hawaii’s prisoners are in a facility in the Arizona desert and in 2012 almost 10,000 of California’s prisoners were in out of state prisons. Former British Home Secretary David Blunkett describes in his memoirs how he looked at using space in Scotland and Northern Ireland when the prison system in England and Wales came under pressure in 2002. But the first and so far only example of one country renting an already staffed and equipped prison from another was in 2009 when the Dutch   government agreed to house Belgian prisoners. When the steep rise in the Dutch prison population came to a halt in the mid 2000’s, Holland was faced with spare capacity.  Tilburg prison, near the border, seemed to provide a temporary solution to Belgium’s chronic overcrowding problem while a building programme was undertaken.

Five years on Norway seems to be following the Belgian lead. It’s much further away of course (more than 1000 kms from Oslo to Amsterdam or a 14 hour drive).  Few Dutch speak Norwegian. But perhaps this won’t matter. The Belgians chose to select prisoners not in frequent need of transfers to Belgium for medical or family reasons, and in respect of whom pressure in terms of rehabilitation is low. This meant to a large extent foreign national prisoners and it  is likely that Norway , a third of whose prisoners are foreign nationals plan to do the same.

When the Committee for thePrevention of Torture (CPT) visited Tilburg in 2011, they took the view that as a matter of principle, a prisoner who has been sentenced to imprisonment in one State should not, on the basis of an administrative decision, be forced to serve the sentence in another State. Prisoners should therefore be able to choose. Will they do so?  Conditions in the Netherlands may not be as good as in Norway (where prison costs 270 euros per prisoner per day- among the highest amount in Europe). The CPT found serious problems of overcrowding and violence at Tilburg and a lack of regime. Norway may need to insist on certain standards in the places it’s buying but if its needs are so urgent it may have to accept what’s on offer. But is the need that urgent?

The prison waiting list is reportedly 1,300 but it has been higher - more than twice that number back in2006.  In much of Europe, people sentenced to prison do not always start their sentence immediately. If they have been on bail they return home to arrange their affairs before receiving an invitation to report to prison. This may be some weeks or months later. In some countries where prison capacity is limited, the invitations are delayed as a way of managing the population. The position is different for those remanded to prison and many foreign nationals, with fewer community ties fall into that category.

But where someone has abided by bail conditions and receives a short sentence there is no reason not to commute that to a period of home detention with some unpaid work of community benefit.  For more serious cases, the Government might look to reduce the proportion of sentences served in custody. Knocking 10% off sentence lengths (replacing them also with a package of tagging and community service), could free up places and improve resettlement.    Renting extra space might no longer be necessary.

Constructive and imaginative measures such as these would confirm Norway’s reputation as a leader in prison reform. It could otherwise be endangered by the risky plans for going Dutch.

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