Prisons across Europe: lessons to be learned from UK's neighbours.
Prison populations have fallen in the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany but elsewhere it is a mixed picture
www.theguardian.com/ 29 april 2014
The Netherlands has more prison staff than prisoners. Sweden is shutting down jails because prisoner numbers have fallen by 10% in under a decade. In Germany, the decline is even starker: a fall of almost 20% since 2005.
In the Netherlands, almost half of all prison capacity is empty. "Community service sentences are one the main reasons," says a spokesperson for the National Agency of Correctional Institutions. Since 2001, courts have replaced short-term jail sentences with community service. For any jail sentence of less than eight months, a four-month community service sentence has to be served instead, for instance in the kitchen of public hospitals.
Electronic tagging will also become more widespread, as the Dutch emulate Britain in one key aspect: trying to reduce costs. Eight out of 85 Dutch prisons are to be closed by 2018, with 3,700 jobs axed.
A new law is also under consideration to make prisoners pay for part of their stay in Dutch jails. If adopted, this law could make all prisoners or their relatives pay a flat rate of €16 (£13) a night by 2015.
Prisons could also be put up for rent: Belgium has shown interest in the overcapacity in Dutch prisons, asking to rent cells. Under a temporary agreement struck in 2009 for €30m, 650 Belgian criminals are kept behind bars in the Netherlands.
Sweden is also slashing capacity because of falling prisoner numbers. Four jails were shut last year. Using probationary sanctions instead of short prison sentences for minor offences is thought to be playing a role.
Elsewhere, it's a mixed picture. Prison numbers are soaring in Turkey and Italy. In France, they have risen more than 30% since 2003, according to Eurostat. Much of the rise is due to harsher sentences, ordered by politicians such as the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who introduced mandatory minimum terms for repeat offenders.
France is home to Europe's biggest prison, at Fleury-Mérogis, which houses 3,800 prisoners, and its experience of large jails may be instructive for the UK. Fleury-Mérogis is now regarded as difficult to run because of its huge size and impersonal nature. It is split into sections to make it easier to manage inmates, but staff still complain it's hard to deal with so many prisoners.
The suicide rate in French jails is one of the highest in Europe, with about 100 deaths a year, according to the latest figures. Dr Louis Albrand, who wrote a government-commissioned report on prison suicides, said he told the authorities they needed smaller, more humane jails, where prison staff know the inmates and can help them keep in touch with families and employers on the outside: "In France, we have immense and inhumane prisons. The larger a prison is, the more inhumane it is. The suicide rate is higher in big prisons, there are twice as many suicides there."
France is not planning to build any more super-prisons to tackle its overcrowding crisis.
"British prisons are much better. In the UK there is more rehabilitation, and prisoners can retain more dignity," said Dr Albrand.
When asked what he thought of the British plan to build super-prisons, he replied "It's a very bad idea."