Opinion: Cheap prison cell solutions

POSTED: 04/9/14 12:43 AM

Now we know why convicts in St. Maarten more often than not return to their illegal habits. Ex-cons tend to break the law more often if they experienced their detention in a negative way. We’re not making this up, we’re divining this from the opinion of Esther van Ginneken who reads criminology at the Liverpool Hope University and who is a member of the foundation People and Criminal Law in the Netherlands. Two inmates in one cell is not a good idea, Van Ginneken reasons. Welcome to St. Maarten where three and sometimes four inmates have to share a cell.

This is what van Ginneken has to say about this issue, in an opinion published last week in Trouw.

In the Netherlands State Secretary Fred Teeven (Security and Justice) has presented plans to increase the use of prison cells by more than one inmate to 50 percent. This means that half of all the available prison cells will be populated by two inmates. Up to now, this percentage is 15.

Unlike in many other countries, the increase of the number of so-called double-cells is not inspired by a cell-shortage in the Netherlands. On the contrary, the large number of empty prison cells means that many prisons have to close down. Putting more inmates in one cell is a cost cutting measure.

A recently published study in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology shows that inmates in the Netherlands who share a cell have a more negative detention experience. They find the quality of their contacts with prison staff of a lower quality. This explains their negative experience for a large part. This contact is especially important to guarantee the safety in a prison, to notice problems quickly and to facilitate the personal supervision of inmates.

One would think that inmates that go through a tough time in prison will tend to err not that quickly again. American research however, shows the opposite to be true.

It is difficult for prison staff to supervise what is happening in a cell. The presence of a cellmate hinders the possibility of personal supervision in the trusted (and confidential) cell-environment. Inmates will more often turn to their cellmate and this could have positive or negative effects. Inmates could find support with each other and break the daily routine. However, the lack of privacy could also lead to irritations and in the worst case to violence.

These recent developments ignore an important issue: what do we want to achieve with a prison sentence? At the moment, the function of prisons seems to be primarily locking up unwanted citizens. Out of sight, out if mind. This way we achieve little in the long run, while the majority of inmates sooner or later returns to the society.

The plans to increase the percentage of cells holding more than one inmate have already been approved by the Dutch Parliament. Therefore, it is now especially important to prevent incidents and to not increase the risk of recidivism. By offering a sufficient number of activities, for instance, the time inmates spend together in their cell can be limited. There must also be opportunity for one-on-one talks between inmates and prison staff.

It is possible that the plea for a more sober prison regime sits well with the electorate, but the long-term interest of a safe and social society ought to come first. A humane treatment of inmates contributes to their re-socialization.

Apart from personal supervision by prison staff, inmates benefit from meaningful activities, like education and work experience that offer opportunities after their release. For most people the punishment only begins after they leave the prison and are treated as second-class citizens. The after care is therefore at least as important as the prevention of recidivism.

It is time to start thinking about how we could limit the detrimental effects of a prison sentence. Two in one cell and a sober regime are (in the short term) cheap, but not good solutions. In the long-term, they are even more expensive as recidivism increases.

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