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Dutch Prisons Are Being Converted Into Hotels And Apartments Because of Lack of Prisoners

The Netherlands has a problem with prisons and prisoners, just like any other country. But while the rest of the world is struggling with overcrowding, the Netherlands is struggling to fill its prisons. Indeed, the country is actually running out of people to lock up, such that the government has been forced to close prisons throughout the country because they have been sitting empty.

Crime rates in the Netherlands are falling spectacularly for the past two decades, thanks to the country’s wholesome approach to law enforcement that prefers rehabilitation to incarceration.

“The Dutch have a deeply ingrained pragmatism when it comes to regulating law and order,” René van Swaaningen, a professor of criminology at Erasmus School of Law in Rotterdam told The New York Times. “Prisons are very expensive. Unlike the United States, where people tend to focus on the moral arguments for imprisonment, the Netherlands is more focused on what works and what is effective.”

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The front façade of Het Arresthuis jail, which now houses a hotel.

“In the Dutch service we look at the individual," explains Jan Roelof van der Spoel, the deputy governor of Norgerhaven, a high-security prison in the Netherlands. “If somebody has a drug problem we treat their addiction, if they are aggressive we provide anger management, if they have got money problems we give them debt counselling. So we try to remove whatever it was that caused the crime. The inmate himself or herself must be willing to change but our method has been very effective. Over the last 10 years, our work has improved more and more.”

Norgerhaven, a prison in the northern Netherlands, has plenty of open space with oak trees, picnic tables and volleyball nets. Prisoners can raise chicken and grow vegetables. The ability to exercise in the open and the fresh air reduces stress levels for both inmates and staff. Detainees are allowed to walk unaccompanied to the library, to the clinic or to the canteen and this autonomy helps them to adapt to normal life after their sentence. Meals are prepared by the inmates themselves in the kitchen where they regularly handle knives, although these knives are chained to the worktop so they can’t take them. Learning to cook is another way the prison helps offenders to get back on track after their release.


Related: Bastoy, The Nicest Prison in The World


Fewer than ten percent inmates return to prison after their release. In comparison, in England and Wales, and in the United States, roughly half of those serving short sentences are back in prison within two years, and the figure is often higher for young adults.

Because of falling crime rates, prison population has halved during the past decade, which means plenty of empty cells. Additionally, Dutch judges often sentence offenders to alternatives such as community service orders, fines and electronic tagging, so fewer offenders are being jailed. Only those who are considered too dangerous to release, or those vulnerable who need help are incarcerated.

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The grounds of Norgerhaven.

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Common room where inmates relax at Norgerhaven

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A selection of magazines in the reading room at Norgerhaven.

In 2015, the Netherlands leased some of their vacant cells to Norway and to Belgium. Some 250 prisoners from Norway were imported into empty cells at the Norgerhaven prison.

Since 2013, the Netherlands have closed 19 prisons and more are slated to close in the coming years. Some of the closed prisons have been transformed into housing for asylum seekers, and some renovated into apartments and hotels.

The Het Arresthuis jail in Roermond was opened in 1863, and after nearly 150 years of use, it was closed in 2007. Four years later, it opened as a hotel with 40 rooms, out of the original 105 prisoner cells, and suits that open out to a lounge in the old prison hallway. Its four most expensive suites are named the The Lawyer, The Judge, The Governor and The Jailer.

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The Het Arresthuis jail, now a hotel.

The Bijlmerbajes prison complex in Amsterdam is also being renovated into a lush, green, eco-friendly neighborhood with 1350 residential units. The prison, consisting of six tall towers, was closed in 2016.

The Netherlands relaxed attitude to the prison system is shared by many Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway, where the focus is on rehabilitation, normalization and dignity.

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us,” the director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service told The Guardian.

Like the Netherlands, Sweden’s crime rates are falling too, and in four years between 2010 and 2014, the country closed 56 prisons.

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The Bijlmerbajes prison complex in Amsterdam. Photo credit: Aerovista Luchtfotografie / Shutterstock.com

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Artist view of Bijlmerbajes will look like after renovation.

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Artist view of Bijlmerbajes will look like after renovation.

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