Nature-based detention houses

This post was originally published on 24th October 2023 by Penal Reform International.

In a context of climate crisis and rising costs, prisons, like all institutions, must take action to be more sustainable and minimise impact on the environment. In this blog, Wiep Fokker from Restorative Justice Netherlands makes the case for nature-based detention houses as an ecologically sustainable model for penal reform.

The climate and biodiversity crisis call for a commitment to sustainability in all sectors of our society. While this includes the prison system, there has been little talk of sustainable detention in Europe. It is high time we took a closer look at the ecological sustainability of detention that could contribute to future penal reform: Nature-Based Detention Houses. RESCALED is a European movement with the mission to support the use of detention houses instead of large prison institutions, with the aim that one day, societies are inclusive, safe and sustainable.

A detention house is based on three pillars: small scale, differentiation, and community-integration. There is not one perfect example of a detention house, instead, RESCALED is showing the spectrum of many possibilities to create nature-based detention houses in Europe. How can these houses help us make criminal justice fairer, more effective and environmentally friendly? And why is this shift crucial?

To start with the big ‘Why?’ of the story. You may wonder why it is necessary to add the ‘nature-based’ part to the concept of detention houses. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nature-based solutions “address societal challenges through the protection, sustainable management and restoration of both natural and modified ecosystems, benefitting both biodiversity and human well-being”.

This is important since the climate and biodiversity crises we are currently facing ask for precise and swift action. In 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted to translate the three dimensions of sustainability (social, ecological, economic) into 17 concrete goals for sustainably developed societies in 2030. While much of the focus to date has been on social sustainability, comprehensive solutions can be found in an interconnected combination of the three dimensions of sustainability: social (people), ecological (planet) and economic (prosperity). Therefore, nature-based detention houses could be defined as small scale, differentiated detention facilities embedded within the community, which protect, manage and restore surrounding ecosystems.

Let’s take a closer look at the dimension ‘planet’ and see what added value this – together with people and prosperity – could bring to our justice systems. Thus, let’s move on to the ‘How?’ of the story.

The meaningful ecological impact of detention houses can be ensured by working on both methods and materials: on the one hand, material changes require amendments in architecture, energy and food supply; on the other, changes in methods of activities, transport and waste management can reduce negative impacts on the environment. In this, the so-called ‘ecological footprint’ can be a helpful tool to measure the ecological impacts of detention houses on both a local and (inter)national level. This was, for example, calculated for the Dutch judicial organisation (DJI). The method covers the “total area of land and sea required to sustain an activity or population”, which includes environmental impacts and enables organisations to gain insights in their consumption or production patterns. The aim of nature-based detention houses would therefore be to make the ecological footprint as small as possible and to maximise their positive impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

As for the material aspects, the architectural possibilities offered by detention houses can be promising. Such buildings could for example contain green facades, which is a proven way to contribute to the reduction of air and surface temperatures. Examples of such ‘Vertical Forests’ can be found in various cities around the world, inspired by architect Stefano Boeri.

Vertical Forest | Stefano Boeri Architetti
Doughnut model

The great amount of greenspace included in the inside and outside areas of nature-based detention houses would not only counter biodiversity losses, but also support the wellbeing of both incarcerated people and staff[1]. For example, the mere prospect of a natural living environment with vegetation and wooded area can result in a decrease in self-harm and violence among incarcerated people[2]. When it comes to the methodological aspects, in nature-based detention houses the focus should be on local and reciprocal collaboration and circular economy, for working in line with the ‘doughnut model’ (see below). Recycling of waste should be encouraged, both in the living environment and during working activities. Or think about sustainable meals for incarcerated people, with more plant-based nutrients and produced in an environmentally friendly way in their own vegetable gardens. These changes could be beneficial for both the environment as well as for the health of incarcerated people. 

Are you curious to read more about nature-based detention houses? An introduction to my research on the three levels of sustainability is published on the website of WISH-EU. From the beginning of 2024 onwards, RESCALED together with Restorative Justice Netherlands will share examples of the different aspects of nature-based detention houses as part of their continued work on the ‘Ecosystem’ of detention houses. Stay updated via the LinkedIn or Instagram of Restorative Justice Netherlands or LinkedIn or Instagram of RESCALED. For questions, reach out to me directly at wiep.fokker@restorativejustice.nl.

[1] Moran, D., Jones, P. I., Jordaan, J. A., & Porter, A. E. (2022). Nature contact in the carceral workplace: greenspace and staff sickness absence in prisons in England and Wales. Environment and Behavior, 54(2), 276-299. Boone, M., Althoff, M. & Koenraadt, F. (2016). Het leefklimaat in justitiële inrichtingen. Boom Lemma.

[2] Moran, D., Jones, P. I., Jordaan, J. A., & Porter, A. E. (2020). Does nature contact in prison improve well-being? Mapping land cover to identify the effect of greenspace on self-harm and violence in prisons in England and Wales. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 111(6), 1779-1795.

The ecosystem of detention houses

Detention houses have emerged on the local, national and, more recently, even the European level, attracting the attention of policymakers, researchers, practitioners and civil society. These detention houses are based on three principles that reinforce each other: small-scale, differentiation and community-integration. If people are to be deprived of their liberty as a pre-trial measure or as a sentence, a detention house provides the right context for each individual. To fully grasp the value and potential of detention houses, we need to look beyond their observable features (like their scale or location) and consider all dimensions of their ecosystem. This blog text will explain this ecosystem approach and how this can be applied to justice reform.

Detention houses as healthy ecosystems

The ecosystem of a detention house is shaped by the individuals that are connected to the detention house, their communities and society as a whole, which all mutually influence each other. Incarcerated people mostly stay at the detention house, while staff members come and go on a daily basis. Visitors may enter for a shorter period of time and then leave again, which is also the case for psychologists, teachers, and social workers. Incarcerated people may also leave the detention houses to go to school and return in the evening, for example. All the individuals involved interact in a web of relationships, together shaping the social environment in and around the detention house. These relationships can be facilitated, or impeded or blocked, by other features like architectural design, work and education opportunities, psychosocial support, staff well-being, the use of technology etc. Considering all these dimensions in and around a detention house in a holistic way is what we call the ecosystem perspective on detention houses. In healthy ecosystems, all different elements reinforce each other when they interact to form an effective and harmonious system. For example, when the design helps to create a constructive social climate, when staff members contribute to relational security, when neighbouring schools are supported to include incarcerated people among their students etc. The reverse can also happen: a disruptive factor can throw the ecosystem out of balance. 

Towards safe, sustainable and inclusive societies

The ecosystem of a detention house is not limited to the physical boundaries of the detention house, nor is it limited to the boundaries of the criminal justice system. On the contrary, it exists at the junction of other ecosystems: that of the criminal justice system, the health care and mental health care system, the education system, the employment system etc. These different ecosystems interact and overlap, just as the ecosystems of forests and lakes do in nature. Such a holistic approach to detention houses is needed because of the complex nature of the social challenges they are facing and trying to meet. Crime and its root causes find their origin in the complexity of social issues. Therefore, societal reactions to crime cannot be isolated from the society. At the same time, it is clear that part of the current pressure on the criminal justice system is due to shortcomings in other systems, such as the mental health care system. These pressures cannot be solved by detention houses if not addressed holistically. The key is therefore to involve society in the implementation of detention houses and appeal to the shared responsibilities of justice, health care, mental health care, education, employment and other relevant systems in society.

Increasing the know-how on detention houses

So, how to grasp this ecosystem of a detention house? That journey has been kicked off on 20 March 2024, with more than 80 experts from across Europe, discussing 14 different topics related to detention houses and exploring their interconnectedness. The experts’ insights have informed the establishment of various Knowledge Workspaces managed by RESCALED, which are designed to dive into specific topics while always considering the broader ecosystem of a detention house. Each Knowledge Workspace serves as a space for connections between research, practice and policy, as well as different perspectives and backgrounds. These connections foster new insights, shared understanding and innovative solutions, and this know-how can subsequently support the implementation of detention houses in Europe, with continuous reflection and improvement of the existing knowledge. It is only through this comprehensive and systemic approach that we can be confident that the justice reform from large prison institutions to detention houses contributes to more inclusive, safe and sustainable societies.

We look forward to spearheading this process with the RESCALED Movement!

Small-scale detention

Originally published on 19 April 2024 in Italian at www.rapportoantigone.it

This model of detention refers to three fundamental principles: small-scale, differentiation and community-integration

On March 21st we were guests of the Belgian Federal Senate, at the invitation of the European RESCALED network, to discuss small-scale detention with representatives of European institutions and civil society.

In recent years, the activism and visibility of RESCALED has grown in Europe, a network that supports small-scale detention houses that question the effectiveness of large prison institutions and traditional security measures. This model of detention refers to three fundamental principles: small-scale, differentiation and integration into the community.

In 2022 RESCALED attempted to map and describe the most interesting small-scale detention practices in Europe, differentiated and integrated into the community, adopting a common evaluation matrix, which in turn served as the basis for the preparation of detailed reports. All to enrich understanding of the most interesting practices and gain in-depth insight into the factors that contribute to the success, or potential risks, associated with the implementation of small-scale detention facilities.

To correctly understand the RESCALED approach, it is important first of all to clarify, the intentions of those who created the movement, and what the three principles stated above refer to.

      1. Small-scale: Detention houses have limited capacity, to allow for the creation of a community where individuals can regain their autonomy and act responsibly.
      2. Differentiation: Differentiation refers to the creation of an optimal environment that meets the unique needs and circumstances of individuals. It involves the ambition to place individuals within an appropriate context based on their needs and characteristics. This can be done by tailoring the security dimension based on the risk represented by residents and providing complete and personalized support, through services, activities and programs, to prepare people for their return to society.
      3. Community-integration: Detention houses should be integrated into the local community, to allow interaction and collaboration with the community. By using existing community services and in turn, offering shared services to residents in line with their needs, detention houses should establish meaningful links with the community.

The project is clearly ambitious and clashes, head-on, with many of the characteristics we generally associate with detention

The project is clearly ambitious and clashes, head-on, with many of the characteristics we generally associate with detention. It seems impossible, for example, to talk about a small scale, in a Europe where apparently increasingly larger prisons are apparently being built. Or to reason about differentiation, a principle often stated, but which usually represents only a feeble attempt to counteract the depersonalisation, disempowerment and rigid discipline that we almost naturally associate with detention. And the same goes for community-integration, a principle that is often appealed to, but which usually does not prevail over its opposite, i.e., the idea that prison is first and foremost a device for separation from the community.

Today in Lithuania many transition houses are opening, open prisons to prepare for release

Yet, among the experiences described by the mapping done by RESCALED, there are surprising cases. As one would expect, many of these concern the Scandinavian countries, countries that traditionally combine limited recourse to criminal justice with considerable support for inclusion policies through solid and widespread welfare. 

But it also turns out that interesting things have happened in other countries in recent years. This is for instance the case of Lithuania, a country that for years had the highest detention rate among European countries and a detention model substantially borrowed from the Soviet Union. Today, many transition houses, open prisons to prepare for release, are opening in Lithuania, which to some extent try to adopt the principles stated above: small-scale, differentiation and community-integration. 

The same thing has happened in Belgium in recent years, with the opening of several transition houses, as well as a number of detention facilities designed for a different type of user, people who have to serve short sentences. These too are small in size and with lower security levels, adapted to the risk actually posed by the persons housed and not calibrated, as often happens in traditional detention facilities, to the risk posed by the more conflictual and less cooperative minority of the incarcerated population.         

Finally, and this is the experience of many countries, Italy included, for specific groups of incarcerated people, generally characterized by some form of vulnerability, the use of small-scale detention facilities, generally considered an improvement over mass incarceration, has been and is attempted. Think, for Italy, of our many small juvenile prisons, of the ICAM for detained mothers, or of the REMS for recipients of psychiatric security measures. Small-sized structures in which the progress made in terms of differentiation and integration with the community is probably not exciting, but in which at the same time the mere fact of their small size ends up at least containing their opposite, the depersonalisation typical of larger structures.

Warning against the risk that small-scale detention, if built in partnership with the private sector, may open the doors to forms of privatisation of detention

Antigone welcomed the confrontation with this reality, offering its experience and expertise. And for instance by promoting a reflection on the methods of monitoring and supervision of these facilities, which remain places of liberty deprivation, and therefore contexts where the risk of an illegitimate and arbitrary compression of fundamental rights is always present. But also warning against the risk that small-scale detention, if built in partnership with the private sector, as happens in some cases for example in the Netherlands or Portugal, may open the doors to forms of privatisation of detention. An outcome that is unacceptable to us but which must always be kept in mind, especially in recent years in which we have seen, not only in Italy, the disastrous outcome of entrusting the management of detention centres for migrants to private entities.

As I said, we therefore welcomed this confrontation. And this for several reasons. The first, the most obvious, is that we are interested in learning more about detention methods and practices that are different from those we are used to. Many scholars and operators from other countries are interested in ours, and in particular in the experience of REMS, which in Europe is often considered a good practice from which to take an example.

The second is that in Italy there has been a debate on these issues for years, generally confined to professionals, which has to some extent come out into the open with proposed law no. 1064 for the establishment of Territorial Social Reintegration Houses. The proposed law aims to establish alternative structures to prison, aimed at accommodating all persons who are serving a prison sentence, including residual sentences not exceeding twelve months. As of December 31 2023, this group was, as we reported, 7,648 people.

In these new facilities, with a limited capacity of between five and fifteen people, placed under the direction of the mayor or someone delegated by them, and in which staff employed by the Municipality should operate, it would be concretely possible to implement the constitutional principle of the re-educative purpose of punishment precisely because of their small size, but also because of their integration into the community, both of which are central to the reflection I mentioned above.

To reflect on the function we want prison to perform, on the characteristics it should have to carry it out and, on the indicators, we should use to verify its adequacy in practice

Finally, and this to me is perhaps the most interesting reason for this debate, the opportunity it presents to reflect on the function we want prison to perform, on the characteristics it should have to carry it out and, on the indicators, we should use to verify its adequacy in practice. 

After all, decades of senseless debate on more or less extraordinary prison-building plans have not allowed us to make any progress in this direction. Over the years, astronomical figures and ambitious plans in terms of prison capacity have been discussed. Thousands and thousands of prison places have been promised and never realised, in a growing building frenzy, which was never accompanied by a reflection on what was actually to be built, and for what purpose. We continue to re-propose old detention models, more or less humanized, which we have seen in operation over the decades and which, when investigated, have proven to be good devices perhaps for the storage of human beings, generally in less than dignified conditions, but nothing more. 

Is this the meaning of detention in our system? The containment and neutralisation of people who have to serve a prison sentence? Are we okay with this or do we want to try something else? And in which spaces, and with which organisational models? The debate on small-scale detention, as on any other concept of detention, inevitably raises these questions and imposes a reflection of which we have not been capable, and of which there is evidently a great need.

UTRECHT HUMAN RIGHTS CITY → UTRECHT RESTORATIVE CITY

street view of Utrecht with pedestrians and cyclists

The Restorative City concept responds to current social challenges posed by rapid urbanisation, environmental degradation, and the need for more sustainable and livable urban spaces. It aligns with growing awareness of the interconnectedness between the built environment, (social and criminal) justice and the well-being of individuals and communities. These communities reside in resilient urban environments that benefit both people, the planet and prosperity. A restorative city involves a holistic and integrated or even circular approach to justice, consisting of doing justice and undoing injustice, often related to environmental, social, societal, cultural, and economic factors.

In 2023, 2024 and 2025 the Netherlands Office of RESCALED [RJN], together with the local health- and justice sector, will explore the relationship between small-scale detention houses and the dynamic interaction with their local urban, economic and social context. 

As early as 2012, the United Nations named Utrecht the first ‘human rights city‘ in the Netherlands. Utrecht received this title because the city had been working for years to translate international agreements on, among other things, poverty and privacy into local policy. For example, Utrecht was the first Dutch municipality where descendants of enslaved people could change their surname, it was the first city with an environmental zone for passenger cars and its local policy led the way in complying with national agreements for allocating social housing to residence permit holders.

In addition to its efforts in various policy areas, Utrecht distinguishes itself by an inclusive and participatory approach to governance. Citizens are actively involved in decision-making processes. This is made possible by citizen participation platforms and forums, which allow residents to make their voices heard and contribute to the development of policies that affect their lives.

As a ‘human rights city’, Utrecht is actively committed to the protection and promotion of universal human rights, and has been working towards peace for generations:

In 1713, agreements were made on the terms to end the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe and Queen Anne’s War in North America. The war had lasted more than a century and a half, and peace was concluded in Utrecht on April 11. However, this was not the first peace treaty in Utrecht. In 1474 the Treaty of Utrecht put an end to a major trade war between Dutch and German members of the International Association of Trading Cities, the Hanseatic League, and the Kingdom of England.

In recent history, Utrecht has been the cradle of the so-called ‘Peaceful School’ and the ‘Peaceful Neighbourhood’. Primary school students are trained to become peer mediators. Together with their teachers, students are working on a peaceful school climate. This has inspired others, leading to the peaceful resolution of conflicts in neighbourhoods becoming increasingly common.

A TRADITION OF RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

When it comes to applying restorative justice, Utrecht has a rich tradition of doing so. As part of the national liveability and safety programme, additional investments will be made in the Overvecht district to increase liveability and safety. This is done by increasing the number of homes, renovating existing homes, and realising social facilities. In addition, poverty and debt are tackled, guidance is provided in finding work, and support is provided to young vulnerable residents. Work is also being done to strengthen the resilience and resistance of the residents.

When it comes to prisons, the city of Utrecht had its own prison from 1856 to 2014: Wolvenplein. It has been given a completely new function, repurposing the existing building through a local initiative: Stadsdorp Wolvenburg. An inclusive neighbourhood with a space for meeting, living, working, food catering and culture. Some activities in the building still refer to its old function, the internal design of the building is preserved and monumental parts of the building are restored as much as possible.

Very recently, Restorative Justice Netherlands (Annemieke Wolthuis and Makiri Mual) took the initiative to organise periodic meetings under the title Restorative Cafés, where the concept of Utrecht as a ‘Restorative City’ is explored and further developed.

WHAT IS A RESTORATIVE CITY?

A “Restorative City” focuses on applying restorative practices and principles to resolve conflict, repair relationships and build a strong, supportive community. A restorative city thereby focuses on restoring relations (micro level), organisational failures (meso level) and system failures (macro level). The idea stems from restorative justice, an approach to conflict that not only focuses on punishment but also on repairing harm, damage and defects. 

A restorative city strives to extend this approach beyond the justice system and integrates it into all aspects of society. It aims to find just solutions together with all those involved in redressing injustice that has arisen in the past (in the broadest sense) combined with future-oriented solutions. 

SMALL-SCALE DETENTION SHOULD BE PART OF A RESTORATIVE CITY.

An essential aspect of a restorative city is the implementation of small-scale detention houses. Maintaining large-scale prisons within a restorative city implies maintaining a system in which some individuals remain excluded from society. Instead, small-scale detention offers the opportunity to focus on recovery and promote individuals’ integration into society. This approach ensures that detention does not mean permanent separation but rather a temporary phase in which interaction and connection with the community are maintained. 

In addition, small-scale detention makes it possible to look deeper into the root causes of criminal behaviour, addressing the underlying issues. So the implementation of small-scale detention facilities in a restorative city will create an environment that promotes recovery and integration. A restorative city dares to invest in understanding its citizens and strive for a society in which detention does not only punish but also restores.

Through the INSPIRE project, Restorative Justice Netherlands aims to refine the concept of a restorative city by identifying key principles, such as dialogue, community involvement, democracy and horizontal relationships, and urban design. In addition, the role of small-scale detention within a restorative city will be further explored and applied to some examples.

THE DOUBLE CHALLENGE OF SOCIAL ENTERPRISES IN DETENTION HOUSES

What advantages can a social enterprise bring to the management and development of a detention house? This is one of the questions we ask ourselves as members of the RESCALED network – the European Movement for Detention Houses – to implement or improve, in different countries, alternative detention facilities to prisons. Based on the fundamental three pillars of small-scale, differentiation and community-integration – detention houses not only humanize conviction but contribute to the creation of safer, equal and more inclusive societies. As a network of organizations, we believe that the collective reflection on ways to turn this vision into reality involves not only the continuous exchange of good practices but also the pooling of doubts and questions to be answered together.

One of the projects Reshape is involved in as a member of the RESCALED Movement is INSPIRE, a project funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ program which, as evoked by its acronym, has Incarceration & Social Purpose in Restorative Cities as its main theme. INSPIRE is a collective learning process about detention houses and their dynamic interaction with their local urban, economic and social context. In the virtuous intersection of theory and practice, we try to answer the following questions: What are good examples of restorative justice in relation to detention houses? How can a detention house be implemented? How can a detention house finance itself through a social enterprise? And how can we enhance and amplify the voice of lived experience during the implementation process?

The focus on social entrepreneurship emerges as an effective response in the search for a circular approach between the desire to build paths of personal development, the promotion of social inclusion and sustainable projects for people who have to serve a sentence according to a perspective that does not isolate them but capacitates them (also) in the world of work. And, since this perspective tends towards real social reintegration, the community-integration pillar becomes crucially important.

But what are social enterprises in the first place? They can be defined as businesses “with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximize profit for shareholders and owners” (DTI, 2002, 13). Unlike commonly understood companies, social enterprises create employment and services with a social purpose, democratically engaging people and developing benefits for people with socioeconomic disadvantages and vulnerability, under the terms of self- and community empowerment. 

These kinds of enterprises have a long history in the socio-educational world, born to provide answers linked to the job market while pursuing broader goals such as learning, sharing practices, developing skills and creating environments conducive to the inclusion of people who are very often marginalized or cared for in an assistentialist way. However, it is only recently that more in-depth reflection and knowledge about these realities has been developed, especially in the world of social justice.

One of the many examples of social enterprise within the prison system is the restaurant “InGalera” in the penitentiary of Bollate (Milan, Italy). This unique restaurant is open to the public for lunch and dinner, where people can have an experience which is simultaneously culinary and social: the employees in the preparation and serving of refined dishes are people who are serving a sentence and/or preparing for release, assisted and trained by a professional chef and maître d’hôtel. Many of the workers can receive specific training to obtain a hospitality diploma in the Paolo Frisi Hotel School, located in one of the sections reserved for job placement in the penitentiary of Bollate. “The restaurant was created with the purpose of offering regularly employed prisoners the possibility of learning or regaining a work ethic. It is a meaningful journey in which they receive professional training and learn to be responsible. Here, they prepare to enter civil society and the work arena.” (InGalera presentation). Born in 2004, InGalera keeps representing a strong methodology for training and employment, also thanks to the support of the Cariplo Foundation, the Italian Minister of Justice and other organizations that foster the creation of social enterprises. 

However, within the INSPIRE project, of greatest interest is the implementation of social enterprises within detention houses, conceived as a fruitful way of supporting pathways of successful reentries and contributing to small-scale facilities sustaining themselves economically by not relying on one source of funding. The interweaving of detention houses and social enterprises can take place in very different organizational ways, considering that the activities and services offered by social enterprises can be developed internally or externally, by the NGO running the detention house itself or by other organizations. 

What is interesting in this kind of approach, as aforementioned, is that social enterprises respond to two complementary challenges regarding both economic and socio-educational purposes. The successful running of these realities therefore leads to the possibility of the detention house becoming more and more self-financed thanks to the incomes coming from the enterprise’s activities while representing an interesting pedagogical method for the residents of the detention house itself. In socio-educational terms, participation in work activities of this kind promotes job training and the development of skills that are both marketable (for example: woodworking, gardening, electrical maintenance…) and personal. Thanks to structured employment opportunities, people in detention houses can prepare themselves for a smoother transition to liberty as their social reintegration is supported by the benefits of their engagement in meaningful work: major confidence and self-esteem, sense of accomplishment and proactiveness, stronger working chances, sense of belonging in a supportive network of people which can extend beyond the workplace. 

The SeeHaus Juvenile Prison in free forms in Leonberg (Germany) serves as a good example of how a detention house can host a social business program, not only to generate income for the maintenance of the house but also to offer work and promote job skills to its residents. Its business regards training and the promotion of a wide range of activities (gardening, landscaping, metallurgical work, carpentry, construction, and joinery). Although the income from these activities is not enough to cover the house costs – mostly covered by public funding and donations – their social enterprise is an efficient tool for education, training and social inclusion.  Through offering services to the neighbourhood, the social enterprises managed by SeeHaus promote greater integration with the local community and encourage professional skills for residents. Indeed, social enterprises play a fundamental role in promoting change in the local community, positively influencing social and economic dynamics. The work medium helps mend the tears in the social fabric, creating the conditions for the inclusion and empowerment of marginalized groups of people and stimulating local economies, where profits are often reinvested into community initiatives for transversal well-being. The collaboration between social enterprises and detention houses exemplifies the transformative potential of businesses with a social mission to create a more equal and cohesive society.

It is in this respect that social enterprises contribute to the realization of the community integration pillar which underlies the RESCALED approach. Implementing detention houses requires the creation of a welcoming environment for their residents, encouraging mutual involvement and responsibility with people living in the area, besides collaboration with other services and/or professionals (social and healthcare programs, local governments, municipalities and volunteers).  

The integration of detention houses, especially when newly built, in local communities is a big challenge when it comes to cohabitation with neighbors: stigmatization, fear and misconceptions can create barriers and vicious circles that deepen the sense of isolation that people deprived of their liberty often experience. The NIMBY (NotInMyBackYard) effect represents all those attitudes of opposition towards projects that are seen as negative for the neighborhood – for example detention houses – which are often brought about by preconceived ideas about conviction. The feeling of threat, the fear of irrational risks and the difficulty in acceptance mostly come from a lack of information and sensibilization. 

Social enterprises can step in and offer activities that can reduce the NIMBY effect or even initiate YIMBY (YesInMyBackYard) processes, generating value for the community as a whole. Initiatives that bring people together throughout shared spaces and activities like those exemplified before, allow residents to get to know a reality they probably used to have many prejudices about, transforming stereotypes into faces and names. Moreover, it can represent a pathway for a more restorative approach to justice, symbolically and financially speaking, reducing recidivism and contributing to a general feeling of safety and fairness. 

References:

INSPIRE project: https://www.rescaled.org/projects/ 

InGalera Restaurant: https://www.ingalera.it/en/index.html

From NIMBY to YIMBY practice booklet: https://www.rescaled.org/2022/10/07/from-nimby-to-wimby-practice-booklet/

Léa Sébastien (2013). “Le NIMBY est mort. Vive la résistance éclairée : le cas de l’opposition à un projet de décharge, Essonne, France”, Sociologies pratiques, vol. 27, n°2, pp. 145-165.

Lived experience in the detention house ecosystem

Our societies are under more and more fiscal strain due to increased wages, better healthcare and an ageing population in the Western world. Crime is a significant burden for society both on an economic and social level. The need for a criminal justice system that is both productive and cost-effective will only increase. 


People with lived experience may be exactly what the criminal justice system needs. (Re)habilitation of individuals who offend is probably far less expensive than their reoffending will prove to be. The knowledge of lived experience individuals, who know the criminal justice system from within,  offers a unique understanding of how to make rehabilitation efforts as effective as possible. Building a restorative justice system and a detention house-based system of incarceration will be both humane and cost-effective in the long term. The inclusion of those who know how the system works from personal experience is essential for designing the criminal justice system of the future.

How does one include the lived experience on an individual, service and systemic level? 

To find out how lived experience works best, WayBack conducted interviews with people who work from their background as formerly incarcerated and/or their history of substance abuse. It was important to include both male, female and minority ethnic and religious experiences. Even though women are not a minority group as such, incarcerated women certainly are, and therefore it is useful to emphasize it in this context. In addition to the people involved at Wayback, we also included a formerly incarcerated participant with vast experience in working on the systemic level. For privacy purposes, the participants’ identity was kept anonymous. 

On the individual level 

  • “My main role is being a creator of hope”

The participants believe that working from lived experience gives them credibility towards the incarcerated person that no other social worker can affect. Incarcerated people are often critical of people working in detention facilities, but also in other public offices, and the lived experience provides a base level of trust.

“Prison is oppression. It’s only natural that they are sceptical of those who work in it”

The common background of crime, drugs and incarceration gives the lived experience staff member and the person a natural alliance. If meetings are not bound by certain professional conduct, it provides the possibility to be more direct with both the services and the incarcerated person. The women and other minority participants are even more of the opinion that it is from their shared experiences with incarcerated people that their work becomes effective. The deep stigmas of being a criminal and a woman, a minority ethnicity or a religious minority make it harder for the incarcerated person to be open to help and assistance from people they don’t identify with. 

“Turning-point stories are deficient. There are many factors involved.”

The participants feel that in working from one’s own experience, you must be wary of not using it as a baseline for how others should achieve change. One must also be careful in becoming too much of a friend, both in regards to keeping a professional distance and not being too emotionally involved, in case the person they are assisting fails in their quest for a new life. Moreover, it is important to hold at a distance one’s past and be self-assured in the role of a lived experience staff member. It can be helpful to work from a method, like the WayBackBook, says one participant.

On the service level.

All participants believe that their competence is valued in correctional facilities and have few if any, negative experiences. This might be because of WayBack’s long history in the field and good reputation, and might not apply to all experiences. 

The participants feel that because of the structure of the correctional service and their sometimes excessive focus on security, their work can be more difficult than it needs to be. When an employee from the correctional service is out sick, appointments are cancelled even if this specific employee was not essential for the appointment to be held. In meetings with state and municipal officials or social workers, the participants feel as if their presence is welcomed and that they can be good “translators” and a reassuring presence for the (formerly) incarcerated person.

On the systemic level.

The participants with experience working on structural and systemic levels find that they are met respectfully and that they are compensated for their time in the same way as other experts. Sometimes they do feel that they are supposed to live up to a role that they are not always comfortable with.

“I don’t want ovations for being the girl who quit drugs. I’m not your sad story comeback kid.”

Every so often, the participants perceive that they have little to contribute and that they lack the knowledge to have strong opinions. Understanding the language being used and the concepts and topics discussed can be hard, and combined with feeling like an underdog it can be even harder to ask for explanations. At times, it seems that the meetings they participate in have much talk and little action. In some cases, group discussions have felt close to meaningless, as the subject’s outcome they are involved in discussing seems to have already been decided. It can also feel like people with lived experience are present just for the process to look good on paper, and that makes them feel demoralized for future involvement in systemic work.

Overall, the participants do feel that things are moving in the right direction and that user participation in the correctional field is becoming more valued and relevant. Feeling as if their voice is heard and that their participation has a real impact is rewarding.

The value of punishment?

The participants believe that we as a society need a form of punishment and that restorative processes aren’t always suitable. However, if we are to lock people up it must be done in a fruitful way, with rehabilitation as the focus. Some of the participants had started their process of change while incarcerated and were happy that they had been incarcerated. However, they might have changed their ways at an earlier time if the correctional system had been better suited to helping them achieve said change. Working towards release should start before the serving of the sentence, in pre-mapping the person’s needs and strengths. According to the participants, the time a person is incarcerated can be a golden opportunity during which many will be more able than in their day-to-day lives: to go to appointments with their psychologist, to school or training, or talk through issues in group sessions. 

Detention houses.

Our participants are sceptical of the development towards more and more large-scale prisons in Norway. A system of smaller units that are more in line with the needs of the incarcerated population will better the chances for rehabilitation. They are very critical of the lack of help available for women with traumatic experiences. A large proportion of incarcerated women have had experiences with physical abuse and sexual violations, and require specific treatment and support. The provisions for working with substance use disorders are also far from ideal. All participants feel that a great many incarcerated are kept in an unnecessarily high level of security.

People almost always return from leave, but are still kept in high security”.

Being held in a high-security facility doesn’t aid mental health, and should only be used for those who are regarded as at high risk of fleeing or a danger to others. 

In small-scale detention houses, it is possible to better differentiate and cater to the needs of the incarcerated in terms of support and security level, in collaboration with the local community. To include people with lived experience as staff would be an ideal practice.

From lived experience to lived expertise.

Just as the professional class lacks knowledge of the language of the streets, it can be hard for a person who has spent their life outside the norm to understand the language of professionals. To bridge the gap between them, it’s important to give those who work from lived experience the tools needed to work in the professional realm. This includes learning the language, how services are organized, the structures of power and a good understanding of one’s role. This could be achieved through specialized training, transforming lived experience into lived expertise.

The participant with a vast experience of working on the systemic level had participated in a thorough course that she found very useful, and in having completed this course she was added to a database for user participants. In that, she felt prepared for the work and was also invited into several groups and boards. 

Integrating lived expertise staff in detention houses could act as a bridge between the system and the incarcerated person, and so, make social work easier and more effective. In showing that it is possible to change and creating hope they can have a real impact on those who want to change their lives.

The correctional system of the future.

The prison system is old-fashioned, conservative and to a large degree rooted in religious ideas of penance. Bringing the correctional system into the 21st century must include a more effective way for rehabilitation efforts.

Giving people with lived experience access to, and ideally, employment in a detention house ecosystem will create a good platform for the incarcerated to make a change in their lives, and for an economically viable and humane way forward in our society.

By Simen Iskariot Larsen, lived experience consultant, Wayback Oslo

This article was written as part of the INSPIRE Project on the involvement of formerly incarcerated people. 

“It’s a matter of communication but communication is a matter of feeling”

The journey towards community-integration in the implementation of a detention house

Introduction

Detention houses are characterized by three principles: small-scale, differentiation and community-integration. Unlocking the keys to community integration in the implementation of a detention house is not just about laying bricks and building walls in a neighbourhood – it is about coherence of communication, collaboration and cohesion with stakeholders and local residents. Creating community integration when implementing a detention house can be a challenge. What is the best strategy? Is there one possible strategy that applies to different countries, each with its own political landscape and cultural characteristics? There is no easy answer to these questions. The answers we do have suggest that the process of community-integration is intrinsically linked to the context and people who make up the community. In this article, we unravel the different processes of implementation seen with detention houses in Belgium, depending on their context and neighbourhood. Manu Pintelon, a criminologist based at VZW De Huizen (RESCALED Belgium Office), has been closely involved in this process. Last month, he sat down with us for an interview. 

Let us start with a bit of background information. Belgium has undergone impressive developments over the last decade: from an idea to concrete plans of the Federal Government to implement detention and transition houses. Can you briefly explain the difference between a transition and a detention house? 

Manu: Transition houses are small-scale facilities where incarcerated people can transfer from 18 months before their conditional release date. This type of facility is well-known in Europe and operates under various terms (e.g. halfway house). Residents often spend the majority of their daytime at work or school in the community and stay in the transition house at night. Staff actively supports them in their reintegration process. In Belgium, there are currently three transition houses: Mechelen (since 2021), Gentbrugge (since 2023) and Leuven (opening in 2024). By 2025, the Ministry of Justice aims to have a capacity of at least 100 places in transition houses. 

Detention houses, on the other hand, can accommodate incarcerated people from the first day of their sentence. The first detention houses in Belgium are set for a target group of people with sentences shorter than 3 years. The first detention house was opened in Kortrijk (2022) and the second in Vorst (2023). By 2025, the Ministry of Justice aims to have 10 detention houses in the country. 

The implementation of detention and transition houses does not come without challenges. In fact, the construction of detention facilities is often heavily contested and resisted by local residents. How has this implementation process been in Belgium? 

Manu: The implementation strategy depends on whether we talk about transition houses versus detention houses. The process differs according to who manages the house. We can deduce one important difference, namely that transition houses involve the community at an early stage, while detention houses tend to involve the community only at a later stage. Transition houses are run by independent organizations, such as the transition house in Leuven which will be run by NGO De Kansenfabriek. These organisations work closely with the local government and sometimes work together to find a suitable building to establish a transition house. They keep the community informed through letters, open meetings and events, making sure that everyone can participate from the beginning. For example, in Leuven, 150 people were invited to a neighbourhood event organized by the transition house management, which included the mayor and people with lived experience.

Detention houses, such as in Kortrijk and Vorst, are managed by the Federal Government and follow a more centralized plan. The locations are chosen based on available buildings after which discussions are started with local authorities. Getting their solid support is key for the successful implementation of these houses. Yet these talks can become more challenging as more details become known and detention houses may face more opposition from neighbours and local authorities who were not part of the earlier discussions. These different strategies point out that the timing of community involvement is important for the acceptance of these housing projects. 

Can you tell us more about who is present at these neighbourhood meetings?

Manu: Definitely. Before the opening of a detention house, the neighbourhood meeting is an important step in creating interaction between the detention house and the community. These neighbourhood meetings bring together a diverse range of individuals, with the people who live in the vicinity as the primary focus. In addition, city councillors, non-profit organizations such as NGO De Huizen, people with lived experience, and street workers or community workers are invited to the meeting. The presence of these social organizations leads to one-on-one conversations that delve deeper into the specific concerns and needs of the community. Central to these discussions is the importance of inviting individuals who embody the essence of the city, who are familiar with the pulse of the city and who are capable of immediate, informed responses – an indispensable role often filled by street workers or community workers. Furthermore, the involvement of the neighbourhood police officer is a crucial component, which promotes understanding and works towards effective integration within the community. This diverse composition of people involved in a neighbourhood meeting underlines the need to include multiple perspectives and local stakeholders when implementing a detention house.

The ‘Not in My Backyard’ or NIMBY Syndrome is defined as an ‘attitude of intense, sometimes emotional and categorical opposition to a project that local residents consider will have negative effects (Sébastien, 2013). Recurring arguments made by the neighbourhood often include rising insecurity, fear of increased crime rates and nuisance, devaluation of property, etc. You have been present at the neighbourhood meetings in various municipalities of Belgium. Have you noticed the NIMBY syndrome among local residents? What are the arguments commonly heard at these neighbourhood meetings?

Manu: Several questions are raised at neighbourhood meetings, including questions about practical issues: a neighbour’s garden overlooking the garden of the detention house, a lack of parking spaces due to increased traffic of visitors and social services, etc. However, questions about safety also arise (How do we ensure safety around the local child care center?) and the possible impact on the value of nearby houses. This last argument is especially common. People are worried about the decrease in the value of their houses. Looking at real-life examples in Oslo (Norway) and Kortrijk (Belgium), there does not seem to be direct evidence for this concern yet. This is, however, an important factor that should be researched and evaluated upon implementation. 

Do you have concrete examples of how to overcome this resistance from local residents? 

Manu: An interesting example of how to deal with resistance and find a solution is Genk. Initially, plans for the detention house were met with resistance as the proposal was to build it on land originally designed as a park. The local government and detention house management have now proposed a compromise: the detention house would provide and maintain a large green space, as well as a vegetable garden, highlighting the community’s desire to preserve the green space while repurposing it for communal and functional use. This could potentially contribute to a decrease in resistance to the detention house. However, it currently remains a proposal. Thus we are curious to see how the situation evolves. 

Another interesting example is Olen. Following plans to implement a detention house in this municipality, locals were invited to visit an existing detention house in another city: Kortrijk. Here the residents had the opportunity to see the detention house in practice, to meet its staff, as well as some of the persons living there. The visit felt successful as it cleared up a lot of questions for the residents of Olen. Many also experienced the visit positively and thus felt more convinced of having a detention house in their own city. 

Have there been cities where the resistance could not be overcome? 

Manu: Yes, I’ll give you an example. The Belgian Minister of Justice wanted to implement a detention house in Zelzate and encountered resistance from the local government. This was partly due to the choice of the building which is a former hotel. The location is commonly used as a venue for events like weddings. For the local community, this meant that they would lose this party venue if it were used as a detention house. The resistance could not be overcome, despite ideas to still use a part of the venue for events and train incarcerated people for catering services.

If I look at the cities more generally… I would say that the implementation passes more easily in larger cities such as Brussels, Antwerp, and Genk. Municipalities which already have facilities with a social purpose (such as drug consumption rooms, a large prison, etc.) also find a better footing.  

While the theory of how to achieve community-integration is important, we can also learn a lot from evaluating the experience of implementation in practice. Have you noticed a difference in acceptance by neighbours a year after opening the detention house in Kortrijk? 

Manu: I agree with you. Practice teaches us a great amount. The very first detention house in Belgium opened in September of 2022, in the city of Kortrijk. Fast-forward to more than a year later: there is an increase in community-integration and appreciation for the facility. The detention house recently did a survey among neighbours on their perspective one year ago and today. The survey entailed questions such as ‘If you are walking past the building in the dark. How did that make you feel one year ago versus today?’. The residents’ answers were recorded and displayed in a short video showing a positive trend in the opinions of neighbours. This video has also been valuable to share at neighbourhood meetings to support the implementation of a new detention house. 

What are some concrete examples of initiatives that can inspire others who are looking to build a meaningful relationship with the local community?

Manu: I like to refer to this quote which was shared with me by Amber Deprez:

“It’s a matter of communication but communication is a matter of feeling”.

This quote suggests that to overcome NIMBY resistance, one must understand the emotions of the community. In addition to conveying information, actions such as volunteering, community events and small gestures can build trust and empathy. I can tell you a bit about the initiatives here in Belgium that contribute to a meaningful relationship between the community and people in a detention house. A common example is a social restaurant which employs people who are (or were formerly) incarcerated. In the city of Kortrijk, the residents of the detention house invited the local community for a pancake sale. The proceeds went to a good cause. It was a successful event and strengthened the relationship with the community. Another example is a project called ‘Mooimakers’. The incarcerated people contribute to the local community by helping keep the streets in the area clean. They also offer services to locals by going grocery shopping for vulnerable people or walking their dogs. At the same time, volunteers from the local community engage through a buddy-project in which they couple up with an incarcerated person, allowing them to spend leisure time together. 

Another initiative I found very valuable came from the Belgian Ministry of Justice. They further support the implementation process through a financial contribution (x amount/incarcerated person/year) to the municipality in which a detention house is to be implemented. This sum is used to appoint a person in the interest of both the local government and the detention house, who helps bridge the gap with the local community: How can the detention house create value for the municipality? Which local organisations should the detention house collaborate with? These are just some of the questions to be answered by this person. 

Thank you for sharing these inspiring initiatives. There is clearly a lot to learn from these developments in Belgium. It makes us hopeful to hear that, despite a natural NIMBY reaction, many neighbours do eventually accept a detention house in their neighbourhood and even manage to see its value. This confirms that building inclusive communities and seeing each other as human beings are universal values that many people tend to acknowledge and appreciate.

IS IT SAFE FOR TAXPAYERS TO INVEST IN OUR PRISONS?

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).

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.