Less and smaller prisons for more human dignity

Written by: Sonja Snacken, Professor of Criminology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Prisons are highly potent but highly damaging institutions, both symbolically and in their real effects. Prisons are especially potent in “producing prisoners”, that means persons who are by definition seen as bad-mad-weak-and/or morally inferior. This mechanism plays both inside the prison walls, where staff tend to apply a sameness principle, and in the public penal imaginary, where the prison walls symbolise protecting us, the “good”, from them, the “bad”. The damage is equally high: degrading persons to one characteristic (offender, prisoner) violates their dignity and identity, negates their individual needs and hampers their social reintegration.

This is problematic for the persons involved but also for society as a whole. Respecting the dignity of all human beings is an essential value for any modern society (Article 1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and this includes unpopular minorities such as prisoners. Degradation has been shown throughout history to enhance the risk of abuse of power; it leads to resistance and tensions inside prisons; and has an emotional impact on prisoners, families and prison staff. The findings by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the European Court of Human Rights demonstrate the continuing challenges raised by prisons in Europe in these respects.

And yes – scale matters. Some prisons are more “survivable” than others, as shown by comparative prison research and by the stories of prisoners and staff members alike. This is linked to many factors, including the quality of the interactions between prisoners and staff; safety, well-being, personal development and family contacts for prisoners; social relationships between prisoners; and the overall quality of life experienced by the prisoner. So small scale is not a guarantee in itself, but it may facilitate several of these dimensions. The emphasis by Rescaled on an individual and differentiated approach and on integration of the detention houses in the community is hence as important as their scale.

We should be aware though of the risk of net-widening in the implementation of detention houses. As is often the case with interesting and promising “alternatives” to traditional imprisonment, the risk that they will not replace traditional prisons seems real. On the inflow-side, they could be used for offenders who would not have been imprisonment in the first place, e.g. because they offer adequate treatment programmes and more protection of society than ambulant treatment. At the output-side, they could be introduced as yet another additional stage between prison and conditional release (cf. “halfway” houses), even where this is not strictly necessary for a successful reintegration.

This should not refrain our efforts to strive for more moderate and less damaging penal policies. This includes less and smaller prisons, more respect for the inherent dignity and the needs of victims and offenders, and more support for staff involved in this complex responsibility.

How to exercise autonomy within a small-scale detention house?

Autonomy is a fundamental human need. This is also true for incarcerated people. However, when people are detained in a closed setting, they lose a great deal of their autonomy. Their freedom of movement is limited and so is their freedom of choice. Even small things like toilet paper become something they have to ask for. Things that were normal, without ever thinking about them, become suddenly impossible.


Autonomy and self-reliance are two concepts that recur in almost all discussions and stories about detention houses, pilot projects, alternative wards, and experimental regimes that exist or have existed in Dutch prisons.[1] In these discussions, autonomy and self-reliance are considered crucial for incarcerated people’s future perspectives, motivation, and the ability to make the right choices.

RESCALED proposes to implement liberty-deprivation in detention houses instead of prisons. While re-thinking the way in which liberty-deprivation takes place, let us also re-think the way in which people in detention can continue to exercise autonomy. The many small detention houses will differ from each other in terms of security levels, methodologies and working methods, interaction with the neighborhood, and involvement of support networks. This also means that the opportunities for autonomy and self-reliance can be individually-tailored and should only be restricted as far as strictly necessary.

Competence, belonging and autonomy are three psychological needs of any human being

Let us now take a closer look at the concepts of autonomy and self-reliance, and how they relate to human brains, psychology and behavior. The study of Deci and Ryan (1985) is an interesting starting point. Deci and Ryan have studied the interaction between autonomy, belonging, and competence, which are three psychological needs of any human being. Autonomy is defined in this study as the experienced choice regarding one’s own behavior. When these needs are not met, it will negatively affect people’s self-motivation and mental health. The reverse is also true: when people become autonomous, their performance, well-being and involvement increase. This is in line with other research findings (Sheikholeslami & Arab-Moghaddam, 2010; Meijers, Harte & Scherder, 2018).


So, if autonomy is key to people’s well-being, how do we establish the right conditions for people to be autonomous whilst deprived of their liberty? Fortunately, I am not the only one to pose this question, and certainly not the first one. In the Netherlands, many pilot projects and prison units have been implemented exactly for this purpose: to increase incarcerated people’s self-reliance. In some units, residents have the key to their own cell; in others, they can use their own phone or can leave for work in the daytime. Not only the material conditions but also staff members play an important role in increasing the feeling of autonomy. A study by Molleman and Leeuw (2012) shows that people in detention experience more autonomy when staff plays a more supportive role. Many pilots were evaluated positively, and staff witnessed improvements in residents’ health. Moreover, these residents focused more on future perspective and seemed better prepared for their life after detention.


Let us now take this one step further and think about the ways in which autonomy can be increased in detention houses. The starting point is that the sentence consists only of the deprivation of liberty and that people should retain as much autonomy as possible. The big advantage of detention houses is that they are small. That means that the way of working can be individually tailored. Each individual has his or her own way to deal with autonomy. In houses with a low-security level, this will be easy. People will be able to cook together, have access to their phone to contact family and friends, might have internet-access, and leave the detention house for work or other daytime activities. But also in detention houses with a higher security level, this will be important. Perhaps even more important to think about.


In a high-security detention house, increasing autonomy will be all about small elements of self-reliance. The freedom of movement inside the house and garden does not have to be restricted. By giving people the key to their own room, their feeling of autonomy will increase. But autonomy involves more than physical movement. It also includes control over daily life activities that can be implemented in a closed setting: managing one’s own finances, under supervision if needed, determining one’s own daily schedule, being able to cook, even if it is only once a week, being able to do one’s own laundry and to order groceries. The feeling of control and autonomy will also increase when people can set their own goals, in addition to their goals of reintegration, and when they are supported in achieving these goals by enabling them to study or exercise, or by involving their social network. And why not empower them by letting them organize social activities in the detention house?


The custodial sentence only limits people’s freedom, so let’s not shackle the brain!


Amongst others [1] Meer autonomie en contact met de buitenwereld maakt gedetineerden minder agressief

Rescaled: prisons in the city

Rescaled project is the fruit of the partnership between different organisations from four European countries. The movement began in Belgium and aims at prompting a change in scale for prison related practices. It promotes the use of smaller prison facilities located in the heart of the city.


On 10 April 2019, Rescaled held an international conference to launch this project. Prison Insider had three questions for Hans Claus, the secretary of the organisation “De Huizen” (The Houses) and spokesperson for the project.


Belgium was a Lead State in prison related matters, among other things, in the 19th century. We thought it would always be that way


Prison Insider. What inspired the creation of “Rescaled” and what does the project entail?

Hans Claus. A number of findings led to the creation of Rescaled. We observed that Belgium, the founding country of the project, is within the average in terms of imprisonment practices in Europe, with an incarceration rate of 100 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants; recourse to pre-trial detention is quite significant (33% of prisoners are on remand); prison buildings are in poor state ─more than half of them were built since the 19th century; and recidivism rate is around 60%.


Belgium does not invest enough in the management of its prisons an spends half as much as the Netherlands, for example. We have been reproached on several occasions by Europe for prison overpopulation and the degrading treatment of prisoners.


This can be explained by the fact that Belgium was a Lead State in prison related matters, among other things, in the 19th century. We thought it would always be that way. Over the last 40 years in particular, we can talk about overpopulation and under budgeting.

In 2010, the government decided to increase the capacity of the prison facilities in response to overpopulation. To the surprise of several criminologists, the “new” prisons were replica of the panoptic ones in the 19th century

Then, the so-called “houses” movement came about, aiming to put forward an alternative model. The concept of “detention house” is the result of two years of cooperative multidisciplinary research englobing criminology, architecture, economy and philosophy. Journalists, researchers and politicians were also involved. The detention house is small, with a maximum capacity of 30 prisoners, and has distinctive security schemes and proposed programmes, right in the heart of society, in the cities, and not away from them.


We are hoping that this new model will replace the old paradigm of traditional imprisonment in prison facilities.


Why support smaller prisons located within cities? What would get in the way of implementing such a policy?

If the size of prisons is reduced, each inmate can have access to better care and follow-up. The principles of law can be respected, and reintegration can really be implemented. Distinguishing the programmes would give room for detention regimes that are aimed at reintegration and reparation while also respecting security requirements. The proposed model also provides for high-security houses with better security than the larger and sometimes chaotic prisons.


It is possible to better involve the surroundings in the execution of the sentence: detention houses can be useful to the community. If the recidivism rate can be reduced, the society will benefit from it both morally and financially.

However, quite a few obstacles exist and lots of questions are being raised. Is society ready for such a change in the penitential paradigm?

How about security? Is it not too expensive? Who wants to live on a street with a detention house? Can it still be considered as sentencing?

There are answers to all these questions, but it will take some time. For some years now, we have been dedicated to increasing awareness amongst the masses. Pilot projects and recommendations from Europe could help.


Our society is going through a transition phase, and this is one factor that works in our favour: it is no longer believed that people are more ready to better reintegrate into society after getting out of prison; the industrial society no longer exists, and our society needs flexible and responsible people, not disciplined ones. This paradigm shift speaks for itself. Rescaled is just the voice, the vehicle of an inevitable change.


Who is part of this movement, and what have you been able and hoping to achieve?

The concept of detention houses came from what is already being done in other countries like Canada and Luxembourg. Rescaled is the name of the European movement made up of 12 organisations from four countries (Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Portugal).


At the national level, we are hoping to see new transition houses, which are small facilities that work as a bridge between prison and society. In 2018, the government issued a call for applications to manage two “pilot” transition houses, where inmates will serve the end of their sentences and benefit from more independence.


We want the next government to enforce the law that allows for young people under the age of 25 to be sent to detention houses when being sentenced for the first time. All the Flemish parties, except Vlaams Belang, have—more or less—expressly included it in their programmes. At the European level, the Green parties have agreed to bring the subject to the table for parliamentary discussions after the elections.