Rumor has it that from a financial point of view, due to economies of scale, large prisons are a better option than small-scaled detention houses. Is this, indeed, the case?

One of the main obstacles raised against the replacement of large prison institutions by small-scaled detention houses concerns the (allegedly) higher financial costs of the latter. The argument – herein simplified – is that large prisons are more cost-efficient because they benefit from economies of scale. Is this indeed the case?

A better understanding on this topic requires an analysis of the existing research on the costs of detention. Contrarily to what we expected, not much has been written on this matter. The empirical evidence is very scarce but points unanimously to the conclusions that (1) size of a prison influences the costs of detention and that (2) prison activity has economies of scale at least to some extent, i.e., there are unit cost reductions associated with an increasing size. Research in the USA suggests that, as far as costs are concerned, the ideal dimension of a prison establishment would range from 1.000 to 1.600 incarcerated persons (Trumbull & Witte, 1981). Research in Italy also shows that the unit cost decreases until the threshold of 300 incarcerated persons (Balassone et all, 2008).

So, we will assume that economies of scale do exist in prisons. But this conclusion – although very relevant – is far from providing a complete answer on how to invest taxpayers’ money efficiently, when it comes to prison systems. Other aspects, questions and disclaimers shall be considered if we want to have a deeper and honest understanding on the costs of detention.

1. Average costs are a false friend

The aforementioned studies concluded that large prisons have an advantage in terms of costs, but this advantage fades out when their capacity goes beyond a certain point. From that point onwards, the advantage is not significant anymore. But there is no unanimity with regards to that exact number, which should be ascertained on a case-by-case basis, especially if we consider that the costs of detention vary significantly not only from country to country, but also from prison to prison. The cost of running prison establishments is usually measured by the daily cost per detainee, which, according to the most recent SPACE I Report (Aebi & Tiago, 2020) of the Council of Europe, varies between € 2,40 in the Russian Federation and surpasses €600 in Luxembourg. It is also noteworthy that, most of the times, we lack complete information to make informed decisions on this topic. We rarely find official information, published by national Governments, on [i] the costs of each prison establishment and on [ii] the relationship between such costs and the features (i.e., size) of each prison establishment.

Also, prisons are very different amongst themselves and vary greatly from transition or detention houses. Such heterogeneity hinders comparisons. To face this problem, we usually resort to average costs, but they are an illusion, not a safe basis for decisions. With great probability, the average prison establishment does not exist and the same applies to the average transition house. What would matter is the comparison between (i) the costs of keeping someone in a concrete prison and (ii) the costs of placing that same person in a concrete transition house (that already exists or is likely to exist). That is the marginal cost that should be considered when making the decision of replacing a concrete prison by a concrete detention house.

2. Transition houses proving their point

Evidence published on the costs of transition houses is also very scarce. Nonetheless, six of the eight studies analyzed by Seiter et al. (1977), in the USA, attributed to transition houses a lower cost per resident than prison establishments, with only one finding the opposite result and another not finding significant differences. This might be worth consideration: although economies of scale exist, size is not the only feature influencing costs.

In fact, other features will significantly influence the costs and the efficiency of a place of detention. Hall et al. (2013) point out that smaller establishments are often the most efficient, which leads them to conclude that, more important than looking for the ideal size for prisons, it is trying to understand the practices that make them more or less efficient.

3. Recidivism costs money

The top-of-mind costs of running a prison – which include daily operations, security administration, trainings, education, health, clothing, and food, amongst others – are only one part of the whole picture. An effective prison system must contribute to safer societies and to the reduction of crime rates. To put it simple, the money invested in a prison system that does not prevent recidivism is actually going to waste. In other words, recidivism is a cost.

Research on the impact of prisons and transition houses in recidivism is much vaster.  The great majority of studies available, most of which concerning the US reality, indicates that attendance of a transition house reduces the probability of recidivism or, at least, has a similar impact to the one of a prison establishment.[1]

We may even look beyond recidivism and try to address the problems that are at the root of criminal behaviors and may include, among others, poverty, lack of employment, lack of education and lack of social ties. In fact, the satisfaction of needs such as housing and employment contributes to reducing the probability of recidivism (Freudenberg et al., 2005). At this level, there is certain evidence, for example, that transition houses reinforce employment rates of their residents (Seiter et al., 1977).

4. Human-based solutions are worth our money

Investment in prison systems should follow the same pattern as the investment made in education or health systems. We would be willing to invest more money in schools that offer qualified learning opportunities. We would also be willing to invest more money in hospitals that offer better health care. The same way, shouldn’t we be willing to invest more money in a prison system that serves its purpose of reintegrating human beings in a safer society? Small-scaled detention houses are a human-based approach to the deprivation of liberty, strongly focused on the dignity of each individual and on the push for inclusive societies. Even if they prove to be a more expensive solution – which would need to be assessed in a case-by-case basis – they can still be worth the taxpayers’ investment. Rumor also has it as well that “you need to be conscious of the money but not at the cost of your conscience”.

[1] Beha (1976), Seiter et al. (1977), Latessa & Allen (1982), Latessa & Travis (1991), Hartman et al. (1994), Ostermann (2009), Fontaine et al. (2012), Ducharme (2014), Hamilton & Campbell (2014), Costanza et al. (2015), James (2015), Wong et al. (2019).

Pooling our efforts

It seems that we all have gained some experience in deprivation of liberty since the outbreak of COVID-19. It seems that on average we have become more empathetic for those, namely prisoners, who find themselves entirely in that kind of situation.

We like to call our lockdown our own (open air) prison. This comparison appeals to the imagination.

Organisations committed for many years now to helping prisoners are doing everything to strengthen their ambitions getting carried along on the unexpected waves of presumed empathy.

I admire the efforts of those organisations and chuckle about their shrewdness to try to make progress towards meaningful detention, mediation, probation and humanisation in these Covid-19 times. Prisoners deserve more attention. It is a real disgrace that prisoners are still held in overcrowded, often dilapidated prison facilities.

But anyone who seeks better treatment of prisoners within the existing concept of prison, however well intended, forgets that that prison itself is the reflection of values we are no longer defending.

And let’s be clear, we have reached the limit of individualisation; community building is what we should focus on in the future.

Alienation, megalomaniac ideas and bureaucracy keep the old system in place for the time being but the system is doomed to failure. Enforcement of sentences will finally evolve as well. The mega prison concept is the last revival of a model of society that is in fact untenable.

In future, therefore, enforcement of sentences will have to give shape to long-lasting relationships. Small-scale and community-integrated detention houses, together with a whole range of non-residential sentences, are an integral part of taking a long-term view.

We need to start working towards that future now. In fact, we have been doing this for quite a while. Probation, community service, electronic monitoring are sentencing options that try to maintain the social fabric of convicted persons.

But if imprisonment is needed, it must also give shape to all the fine principles that are already legally anchored in the meantime, but not yet put into practice.

And allow me to say the following: anyone who wants to give shape to meaningful, restorative and community building punishment through imprisonment must always add that this is almost impossible within a prison system.

That is why I urge all these people to also promote small-scale detention houses based on the RESCALED concept from now on.

Otherwise I suspect them of not thinking hard enough or feeling so tired from working that they are giving up, fearing the social reaction?

They just keep going around in circles but now is a good time to stop this.

Taking the lead, together with all the progressive penitentiary forces, we might succeed in achieving structural changes.

But not if we systematically keep quiet about the necessary structural redesign.

Incarcerated students are also students: Challenges and solutions from a practical perspective

All people have the right to education. This human right is also enshrined in international human rights instruments for incarcerated people (see for example the Nelson Mandela Rules 104-108). International research shows that prison-based education reduces recidivism.[1] The main explanation for this observation is that prison education enhances the chance of employment after release.[2] Moreover, by strengthening the intellectual, cognitive, and life skills of incarcerated people, prison education can help lower some “natural” barriers to positive community reintegration.[3] As an education coordinator in two Belgian prisons, it is my job to provide incarcerated people with the same education opportunities as people outside prison.

Prison education in Belgium

A fundamental tenet of the Belgian prison system is the normalization principle. This principle entails that the living conditions in Belgian prisons should resemble those in society as closely as possible. Therefore, people’s right to education remains crucial, despite the deprivation of liberty. In practical terms, incarcerated people must be given the same opportunities as other people in society when it comes to their education needs. The Belgian legislator is convinced that bridging the gap between inside and outside, through the provision of a differentiated range of social assistance and services, of which education is an important aspect, will ensure a better reintegration into society, and reduce the risk of recidivism.

Challenges education within prison walls

Nevertheless, the practical organisation of prison-based education is complex. This is partly due to the complex political structure of Belgium. Whilst the federal government is responsible for the execution of sentences, education is a Flemish competence (both inside and outside prison). This means that the many important factors and preconditions for good education are to be provided by the federal prison administration (DG EPI): suitable infrastructure and classrooms, sufficient prison officers so that activities can be organized smoothly, no overcrowding that hampers the good management of the prison, the daily regime in which education can have a place, etc.

Another challenge for prison-based education is that the overall prison population is very diverse in terms of demographic background and (educational) needs. Especially in larger prisons. This diversity makes it very difficult to tailor the offer of group-based prison education to the specific learning needs of each individual. The inevitable consequence is that the offer of education programmes is rather static, and certain individuals will feel let out, despite the best intentions to provide a wide range of educational programmes. In other words, the size, design, and management of large prison institutions make it difficult to individualize the offer and meet everyone’s needs.

Even more importantly, incarcerated people do not have access to the internet. They can only use legally permitted means of communication (art. 65 of the Belgian Prison Act). As a result, incarcerated people are not only physically and socially, but also digitally secluded from society.[4] Digital poverty is one of the most poignant problems of the 21 century. Not only within the prison system but also in society at large. For most of us, a life without the internet is unimaginable. The internet is intertwined with our everyday lives. For the most basic things like making an appointment with the bank or buying a bus ticket, we need internet. In addition, many social services, such as remote learning, are only accessible online and thus, unfortunately, not available for persons incarcerated in Belgian prisons.

If we don’t teach incarcerated people how to use these digital tools – in the same way as people outside prison – they risk missing the boat again upon release.[5] Enabling digital access and strengthening digital skills should not be an issue in detention, but should be self-evident.

Corona crisis as a catalyst for digital developments

Last year, the corona crisis exposed the challenges related to the lack of digitization within the prison walls. The country went into lockdown and incarcerated people were secluded from society even more than usual. No visitors were allowed and almost all social workers were forced to work from home for a certain period. But this crisis has also enabled us to gain momentum. The justice department recognised the importance of digitization, and took action. It was acknowledged that the reintegration of incarcerated people in a rapidly evolving society will be more successful if these changes are anticipated. Two actions were taken. First, the justice department started using Webex (inside and outside prisons), which is a digital tool that enables incarcerated people to make video calls to their family. Second, a working group was established to investigate how to respond to today’s digital needs in the field of prison-based education.[6]

As a practitioner involved in prison-based education, I see improvements and the efforts made. But things are moving slowly… too slowly. The basic question remains whether the prison system will ever catch up, as long as it tries to fit new ideas and new developments from a rapidly developing society into an old prison concept. The prison concept wants to evolve … but continues to face challenges while trying.

Creating the right context for education

Everyone who has ever visited a prison in Belgium, will have seen that the buildings are literally not made for organizing high-quality education. Incarcerated students are supposed to get the same education opportunities as students outside prison, which nowadays involves many digital tools. This is difficult if not impossible in too little and small classrooms, outdated equipment and a strict daily regime. We literally hit the wall while trying.

Why not approach these issues from another perspective? What if we change the context instead? Let’s imagine that we could do our work in small-scale, differentiated and community-integrated detention houses.

First, let’s start from the individual. Good education requires an individualized approach for each person. This is easier in a small-scale context. I work in two Belgian prisons with a different scale, one for about 50 people and one for about 120 people, and notice this difference in my everyday work. In the smaller facility, I know more incarcerated persons by their name, character and their specific needs. This also works in the other direction: they reach out to me more easily, because they know me better.

Second, detention houses that differ from each other, can have their own policies in terms of access to digital tools and internet. In so doing, it does no longer make sense to deny all incarcerated people access to the internet because a few might abuse this access. Some detention houses will have a more liberal policy than others, but as a general rule, all detention houses should have access to the internet. We are living in the 21st century, also in detention.

The differentiation must not only be based on security levels or restrictions, but also consider the content. What do you think of a detention house that focuses specifically a high school diploma? Or on workplace learning and an internship in the community? By working in a differentiated or individualized way, people learn how to deal with freedom and responsibilities, step by step. Taking responsibility also means arranging appointments with community services (such as a school), scheduling meetings and making video calls. Of course, with the support that is necessary. In other words, by differentiating, we would enable self-development.

Third, we must use the services that the community has to offer. This is also done in the current prisons, but as explained above, this is challenging. In practice, we adapt incarcerated student’s learning questions to the limited prison-based educational programmes, instead of using the full range of programmes available in society. Bridging the gap with the regular education system would be easier in a detention house. In detention houses with a higher security level, we can focus on remote learning. Online access to the school’s learning platforms is enough to start a trajectory. But there are other options: the detention house might share a classroom with a school in the neighbourhood (shared spaces) or teaching activities can be organized for mixed groups with incarcerated and other students, which is not exceptional in Belgium (even in closed prisons).

If the old prison concept, designed for individual confinement, isolation and (religious) reflection, cannot simply be given a new purpose, isn’t it time then to evolve towards a detention concept genuinely fit for the 21st century?

[1] Kim, Ryang & Clark, David. (2013). The effect of prison-based college education programs on recidivism: Propensity Score Matching approach. Journal of Criminal Justice. 41. 196–204. 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2013.03.001.
[2] Cho, R. M., & Tyler, J. H. (2013). Does Prison-Based Adult Basic Education Improve Postrelease Outcomes for Male Prisoners in Florida? Crime & Delinquency, 59(7), 975–1005.
[3] Fabelo, T. (2002). The Impact of Prison Education on Community Reintegration of Inmates: The Texas Case. Journal of Correctional Education, 53(3), 106-110. Retrieved March 10, 2021.
[4] Beyens, K. Robberechts, J. & Vanhouche A.-S. (2020). De coronacrisis als momentum voor het gevangenis? Panopticon, 41(4), 365-372
[5] Director general of the Belgian prison system, Rudy Van De Voorde, 2021.
[6] De gevangenis wordt een digitale omgeving. 

Less and smaller prisons for more human dignity

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.