Inconsistent detention policy

Belgium formed a new government in September 2020. Exciting times for organisations that want to influence policy. RESCALED Belgium succeeded in putting detention houses on the political agenda. Literally it is stated in the Coalition Agreement that small-scale detention projects for different target groups, such as those shortly before release, young people aged between 18-25, parents with child… will be continued. Good news, but another remarkable thing is that our government is also creating extra prison capacity by building new large prisons. Two compatible or rather conflicting objectives?


In order to be able to situate the concept of small-scale detention within the new policy, we need to take a closer look at some political documents. On 30 September 2020 the Coalition Agreement of the new De Croo government was published. The section on the enforcement of sentences refers to the implementation of Master Plan III, which is an update of Master Plan I and Master Plan II of the previous governments. These Master Plans are the basis for the prison policy in Belgium. More specifically, these Master Plans, together with the Coalition Agreement, serve as a starting point for the policy document of our new Minister of Justice. On 4 November 2020, his policy document was published in which he outlined his strategy for the coming years.

Small-scale detention was included for the first time in Master Plan III: small-scale transition houses were to be realized in Belgium. These are detention houses intended for people serving the last part of their prison sentence. The first transition house opened in Mechelen in September 2019 (15 places). In January a second transition house (15 places) opened in Edingen/Enghien (see June blog post). It was clear from the start, however, that the government intended to expand this total capacity to 100 places. This was also mentioned in The Coalition Agreement and the policy document. So soon more transition houses will be set up.

Other forms of small-scale detention houses are included for the first time in the policy document of the minister of Justice. The minister sees them as solution to the ‘prison problem’ and prison overcrowding. But he also expressed a new way of looking at our prison system. He believes that detention houses are able to break the vicious circle, especially for young people, in a way that prisons cannot.

In this way the government is creating adjusted capacity with a differentiated level of security that allows incarcerated people to maintain social relationships in society and thus preventing or limiting the harmful effects of detention. In so doing, these small-scale forms of detention play an important role in the subsequent return of these people to society.


The first two pillars of Master Plan III explicitly contain action items such as renovations, extra prison cells and completely new prison facilities. The Coalition Agreement, and the policy note in particular, do emphasize this. In other words: the construction of new prisons is high on the agenda and is planned for the near future.

The construction of two “mega prisons” is planned in 2021-2022. The Dendermonde prison will house 444 people in detention and is built according to the well-known Ducpétiaux model (star-shaped prisons with radiating cell wings from a central observation point). The new Haren prison will accommodate up to 1190 people in detention and is also referred to as a “prison village”. This is promoted as a prison with more humane conditions. Without doubting the good intentions and the need for improved material conditions in Brussels prisons, working towards reintegration will be more difficult in these large prisons, as they cannot be integrated in the community in the same way as small-scale detention houses.

Prison village in Haren.

Prison village in Haren.


New prisons are planned in Antwerp (440 places), Leopoldsburg (312 places), Liège (312 places), Verviers (240 places) and Vresse- sur-Semois (312 places). Some new prisons are being built to replace outdated facilities; other prisons are constructed as a “solution to reduce prison overcrowding”. In short, a lot of extra places.


In the policy documents published by the Minister of Justice there are two things that draw attention. On the one hand the inconsistent approach focusing on small-scale forms of detention, while also building new “mega prisons”. On the other hand the fact that our government is committed to creating extra detention capacity, which is worrying. Why do these inconsistencies arise? A twin-track approach or signs of cold feet?

While the government is sending a clear message that it is aware of the negative impact of imprisonment, increasingly supporting small-scale detention projects, all too often the decision is made to construct “mega prisons”. It is argued that “this is necessary in order to alleviate prison overcrowding”. But we do not think it is as simple as that. Over the past years we have learnt that building new prisons will not reduce prison overcrowding, on the contrary it results in a lack of capacity. Moreover, we must remain vigilant with regard to net widening.

A second reason for building new prisons is also because the current prisons are very outdated, which is logical. These buildings date back to the 19th and 20th centuries. But not only the buildings are outdated. The concept of prison is also hopelessly dated. Society has changed dramatically since then. Innovation is the key word of policymakers, but are modern prisons also part of a progressive prison system’s approach? In the coming decades we will be tied up on the choices we make now. The choices must therefore not only be consistent with the current social needs, but also with those in 20 years’ time.

A third reason is that politicians, together with the rest of us, are used to prisons as places for liberty-deprivation. It takes courage and perhaps some imagination to see that liberty-deprivation can also take place in small-scale detention houses. In fact, implementing liberty-deprivation in small-scale, differentiated and community-integrated detention houses is more in line with the principles underlying our Prison Act. Many Belgian politicians are getting convinced of the importance of detention houses. Expanding small-scale forms of detention is a concrete result of this. However, politicians consider detention houses as being part of a bigger picture, whilst considering large prisons absolutely necessary to solve the capacity problem in the short term. This is a quantitative-based argument that does not go into the very essence of the matter. After all, it does not take so much imagination to see that the 19th century prison concept is not best suited to meet current and future social needs. Focusing on small-scale, differentiated and community-integrated forms of detention would make a qualitative difference.

Replacing the outdated prisons facilities by small-scale, differentiated detention houses that are embedded in society, and no longer by mega prisons who will lead to a situation of ‘security overkill’ to the detriment of care and guidance of people in detention, would in my view demonstrate much more consistency in detention policy. It is time to get rid of our penitentiary heritage breaking the vicious circle for real.

The geographical placement of detention houses: why community-integration matters

While Norwegians urbanize towards the big cities, Norwegian prisons migrate out. Prisons are no longer welcome as part of our city plans. In the last decade, the Government has shut down existing small-scale prisons. These prisons have been replaced by new large-scale prisons, in secluded locations. Why are we seeing this trend towards building new large-scale prisons in rural contexts?

We have clearly witnessed this development over the last decade. The latest example of this trend is the brand new Agder fengsel: Norway’s largest high-security prison, which opened in 2020. Agder fengsel consists of two departments, including Froland fengsel (200 prison places) and Mandal fengsel (100 prison places). Located in the forests and at the outskirts of industrial parks, these facilities remain closed and unavailable to the public. This is at odds with key principles of Norwegian prison policy, such as the proximity principle.

“The proximity principle is an important principle for the correctional services which entails that prisoners should serve their sentence as close to where they live as possible. Keeping close contact with family and friends is important during imprisonment, but also in a rehabilitation perspective. Imprisonment near the prisoners’ home is also of great importance for keeping family ties, especially for children with a parent in prison.”Hanne Hamsund (managing director), The Organisation for Families and Friends of Prisoners (FFP)


For many, the rural placement of Agder fengsel equals long distances and impractical travel routes, which can make it inconvenient and difficult to visit. This inconvenience affects important contact with personal relationships like family and friends. Another consequence is a lack of access to existing networks and services outside of the prison walls for the incarcerated person. Ultimately, leading to the loss of touch with normal life. This form of disconnected imprisonment can increase the level of institutionalization and erect barriers for reintegrating back into society after being released.

The Norwegian correctional service is based on the ideology of rehabilitation, and the principle that prisons should serve as institutions for change and personal development. The people in detention should be able establish a future from behind the walls, so that when they are released, they already have a home to return to, a positive and reliable network, as well as an education or career path to pursue. All in all, incarcerated people should be able to build a strong foundation while in detention that can enable a safe return to their home environment.

Rehabilitation is the expected outcome for the people detained in Agder fengsel. However, if we want them to rehabilitate and successfully reintegrate back into society, we must provide them with the grounds to do so. These grounds can be found in the community. Therefore, we must stop building large, introverted and disconnected institutions. Institutions that become displaced and forgotten.

Instead, we need to re-value and build accessible detention houses that are embedded as part of our urban communities. Socially integrated detention houses with an opportunity to participate and give back to its neighbourhood.

Let us also remember what purpose prisons serve in our society. When prisons are physically removed from society, they fail to convey their message to society, that is to remind us that there is a consequence to crime, which brings about a general deterrence effect, but also that there is a shared responsibility for the successful reintegration of people who have spent some time in detention.


Large facilities deviate from the highly valued proximity principle. A principle sought to be implemented by the Norwegian correctional service. By doing so, we physically disconnected ourselves from prisons. However, to what end? And, more importantly, what are the effects of doing so?

RESCALED proposes an alternative that supports the principles of proximity, rehabilitation and reintegration, all key to Norwegian prison policy. In sight and in mind.

The “new normal” in the prison system?

In Portugal, the Law no. 9/2020, 10th of April, approved an exceptional regime for loosening the execution of sentences in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. The law provides, amongst other measures[1], for the amnesty of crimes with a prison sentence (i) of no more than two years or (ii) whose remaining period does not exceed two years, if the convicted person has already served at least half the sentence. [2]

The measures included by the Government in this legal diploma were subject to the most trenchant criticism by some opposition parties, who considered them to be excessive and prone to a dangerous social alarmism, based on the fear that the release of convicted individuals would pose a risk to the security of the population. Almost four months after the entry into force of this Law, and according to information provided by the Directorate‑General for Reinsertion and Prison Services, the crime rate of the individuals released due to the pandemic was almost nil. According to what was reported by the Jornal de Notícias, “only 24 out of the 1314 individuals released from prison (1.8%) under an amnesty measure (…) committed new crimes and returned to the prison system“.[3] These figures dismantle the prediction, at times apocalyptic, of a significant growth in crime that would stem from the implementation of such loosening measures.

But if the application of the aforementioned measures does not seem to have brought up negative outcomes with regards to recidivism, the same cannot be said about social reintegration, an indicator as relevant as the previous one to assess the efficiency of a prison system. Truth being said, these new measures have uncovered a long-perceived reality: the profound difficulties of social reintegration for people who have been subject to a custodial sentence. According to the reported data, cases occurred of individuals who preferred seclusion to freedom: five people voluntarily returned to a prison establishment and eleven did not provide the necessary consent for a renewal of their leave. [4] It is urgent to reflect about these cases.[5]

One of the main purposes of a sentence is the social reinsertion of the convicted person. This is, from the very beginning, the first of the aims listed in article 2 of the Code of Enforcement of Sentences, according to which “the execution of sentences and security measures involving deprivation of liberty aims at the reinsertion of the agent in society“. But how can the prison system prepare an individual for a return to society if the deprivation of liberty is lived, from beginning to end, in segregation? Can the isolation of an individual, over a long period of time, enlighten him or her on how to live in a community? In many cases, such rupture can be difficult to restore. This isolation is so marked that, when the moment of freedom came, some preferred to voluntarily go back to prison. Now, this result is clearly the opposite of what a prison system purports to achieve. Many people had no back‑up solution at the time of their release for pandemic reasons: some reached out to hospitals, others knocked on the door of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa in search of a room to sleep, others ended up living on the street and there were still those who stayed in a campsite, an emergency response prepared for no more than 40 people.[6]

But what could and should be different, then? How could a prison system be more efficient in achieving its purposes? Going deeper, in light of what criteria should a prison system be assessed? Are the recidivism rates and/or reinsertion metrics sufficient? Even if these are, in themselves, valid criteria for evaluating the ends (or results) achieved, what will be the best criterion for choosing the means to adopt?

The normalization principle, expressly enshrined as the fifth fundamental principle of the European Prison Rules of the Council of Europe, according to which “life in prison shall approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community“.[7]

Using a simplified narrative about the purpose of a sentence, it is valid to say that those who have caused a harm to society – by committing a crime – are deprived of their freedom, so that the period of imprisonment becomes a real opportunity [i] to have a greater insight on the extent of the damage caused, [ii] to gain a better understanding of the conduct that would have been expected from them and [iii] to acquire the tools and skills that are necessary to maintain a socially responsible conduct. Now, a socially responsible way of living is not learnt in theory. It is necessary that life in detention comes as close as possible to a community life, in practical terms. And this normalization must be poured into daily routines, into spaces, into decision-making. How can anyone learn how to better make decisions, individually and jointly, if there is even no freedom to choose what to eat? How can one get used to the responsibility inherent to a job if working in prison is still a perk, a rare opportunity? How can someone learn to better live in society if there are no dialogue forums – where decisions about community dynamics and tasks can be discussed democratically – and, instead, all decisions are imposed from a higher hierarchical level? How can someone acquire the necessary and tailor‑made tools for a full re-socialization, if the attention of one reintegration technician is shared by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of incarcerated persons and if detention is lived in an undersized space – which still happens in about half of the Portuguese prison establishments?

If the context of the current pandemic has created enormous difficulties – namely because of the greater isolation of prison communities, for reasons of public health – it has also enabled the implementation of innovative loosening measures and, with it, the access to data that should not be ignored, but rather used for a deeper reflection. To what extent should (or could) more normalized solutions for detention be offered? Isn’t the securitarian focus given to imprisonment too excessive, insofar as, by restricting the simplest daily decision-making and the most basic family, social and professional interactions, it also coerces the necessary learning of an adequate life in society? Isn’t such a strong isolation from local communities counterproductive? How can I learn to relate to something that is increasingly distant from me?

The truth is that new solutions for detention are emerging throughout the European Union. This includes both “detention houses” and “transition houses”, the latter dedicated to serving the final sentence of a custodial sentence. In contrast to the large prisons of the 19th century, which tend to manage large groups of people within infrastructures that are standardized and separated from local communities, these houses – implemented, with the context-specific adaptations, in several Member States, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Malta – are small-scaled, integrated in the community and provide a differentiated treatment to each person, three pillars that, while not being an end in themselves, are essential precisely because they allow a normalization of life in detention. Small houses allow the acknowledgement of each resident as a unique and unrepeatable individual, the creation of personal relationships and the tailoring of individualized reintegration paths. Houses integrated in a local community allow – even if not instantly, but thoughtfully and progressively – the creation and development of bonds between each resident and the local community. This way, it becomes possible (i) to demystify a certain alarmism of dangerousness (that was on the basis of the opposition to the measures recently adopted in Portugal), (ii) to gradually restore the harm caused to society, namely through services or works carried out by residents, for the benefit of the community and (iii) to establish relationships, either personal or professional, that may last and support the convicted person in the transition to freedom.

In addition, these solutions have proven to be more efficient in fostering reintegration, in reducing recidivism and, consequently, in building a safer society. Now, going back to what was said at the beginning: recent data shows that, in Portugal, the crime rate did not increase as a result of the amnesty given to sentences of no more than two years. If this is the case, a fortiori, the execution of the last two years of a prison sentence in a transition house is not expected to pose a risk to general safety. Will this be an opportunity for such houses to become the “new normal” in our prison system? With great crises come great opportunities, times for change. Could this be the chance for normalization to be the new normal?

[1] Among these measures are (i) the possibility of presidential pardon granted to those who are over 65 years of age and have physical or mental illness or lack autonomy; (ii) the possibility of renewable leaves granted for periods of 45 days, provided that specific requirements are met – such as, for example, the successful exercise of previous leave, the protection of the victim and a founded expectation of a socially responsible behaviour; and (iii) the possibility of anticipating parole for a maximum period of 6 months, provided that the aforementioned leave has been successfully exercised. Both the leave and the anticipated parole are cumulated with the obligation of house permanence under surveillance.
[2] Excluded from the scope of this amnesty was a specific list of crimes, among which are the crimes of homicide, domestic violence and ill-treatment, rape, human trafficking, criminal association, laundering, corruption and drug trafficking. Under the terms of this law, the said amnesty is determined by a penalty enforcement judge and granted “under the condition that the beneficiary does not commit any willful offense in the following year, in which case the penalty applied to the supervening offense accrues to the pardoned penalty” .
[3] Jornal de Notícias, article. Additionally – under distinct loosening measures – 59 people have returned to prison establishments, for failure to comply with the required obligation of house permanence.
[4] Article 
[5] Accordingly vide opinion article 
[6] Jornal de Notícias, article 
[7] Council of Europe, Recommendation Rec(2006)2

Circular justice

There is a well-known Dutch writer, Rutger Bregman, who has written a book entitled ‘Humankind’. With this book, the writer wants to sketch a new image of humanity, creating a new paradigm in which people are good.

‘Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau right? Is it true that man is good by nature, and that everything only went wrong with the emergence of civilization?’

His answer is yes, man is good by nature, so the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right when he wrote ‘Émile, ou De l’éducation’. In his book, Bregman gives dozens of examples in which individuals make the right decisions in difficult situations. In itself, this is a noble endeavor. With tear-jerking examples, he convinces the reader that in most cases humans are actually peaceful creatures.

Bregman is a child of our democratic society. He develops his theory on humankind based on classical-liberal thinking, individualism. Individualism has dominated our society for a long time and, logically, is based on the idea that an individual can fully develop in society and that every person is equal to each other. This is how the principle of equality arose in criminal law, the idea that our law should not be applied arbitrary and that it should treat every person as equal. The problem with that is that humans are not equal. We live in a deeply socially unequal society. Our criminal justice system was also born from this inequality. Is it surprising that our entire criminal justice system is largely made up of white professionals, judges, lawyers and people in prisons are predominantly from different cultural backgrounds? In prisons, individualism translates into all kinds of courses that focus on the dysfunctional individual. Someone is mentally ill, low literate has too little knowledge and capacities, etc. Help and support is quickly limited to ‘improving’, or ‘resocializing’ an individual. And rarely is a situation viewed holistically, or rarely do government agencies take responsibility for creating a “bad” situation that drove an individual to act. In the Netherlands, the government is the largest creditor of people in detention, this concerns health insurance, etc.

The ironic thing about Bregman’s ‘new’ view of mankind, that human beings are good, is that it is nothing new. It is a continuation of an old paradigm born out of religious morality, dichotomous thinking, namely that man is either good or bad. Strikingly, it is the Bible itself that implicitly argues against our modern criminal justice system. The prohibition on eating the apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God forbade Adam and Eve to eat an apple from this tree. I like to think because human beings are not supposed to judge about one another when it comes to what is good and what is evil. At the same time, this is precisely what our entire criminal justice system is designed for, condemning individuals to punishment. A crime is reduced to that one act of that one person. We only take the circumstances, the social network, or socio-economic situation into account as a backdrop when determining the person’s sentence. As if the circumstances are a still life in which that one person can be judged against a scale from good to evil. In this sense, justice is linear, a one-way route on a scale. The legal system should not be dealing with the individual morality, the individual’s ‘good or evil’, but should serve as an in-between space that balances the network of political, social, and cultural relations. Simply put, crime arises from the person AND the situation. Punishment is not central, but the consequences of the choices made by our legal system. Currently, we only look at one side of the story, nature. How about nurture? How does society deal with social issues and to what extent do we criminalize certain issues that could just as well be defined as a social problem that requires a social solution? To what extent can you hold the person responsible and to what extent has society been responsible for not solving structural social problems? This kind of reasoning might sound extreme to some people, but so was the idea that the Earth was round. It is time for us to take responsibility. If we want to reduce the widespread social inequality in society we will need a legal system that does no longer place the consequences of social inequality on the shoulders of individuals but addresses the inequality itself. Just as we can design our economy in a circular manner, we can also redesign our legal system towards circular justice. Circular justice can be defined as the process of exercising group autonomy with the aim of reaching social equity within society.  This cannot be done overnight, but step by step. However, that starts with daring to choose a different horizon, a new future when it comes to a fair legal system.

With the RESCALED movement, this new future is in sight. With the small-scale detention houses, we want to move beyond the paradigm of individualism, based on the old-fashioned ideas of philosophers like Rousseau. You cannot raise a person outside of society to become a perfect person and then expect it to be the same person upon re-entering society. Instead, in detention houses, we assume that people are defined by their immediate social structures, the people they associate with, and the socio-economic context in which they live. We all take responsibility for our neighbor, justice is circular.


Think small

On the 29th of July, the Norwegian Minister of Justice officially opened the new Agder fengsel, Avdeling Mandal. When Avdeling Froland opens in the end of August, Agder fengsel will become Norway’s largest high-security prison with an overall capacity of 300 new places. 200 in Froland and 100 in Mandal. Both consist of brand new buildings, with a total cost of approximately 1.2 billion NOK.

In the media, the prison has been referred to as the new ‘superprison’[1] and ‘a model for the future of the correctional services[2]’. The Minister of Justice has argued that ‘this has to become Norway’s best prison’, while the prison governor himself has gone as far as claiming that Agder has the potential to become the best prison in the world[3].

The core of Agder is punishment combined with rehabilitation. This means that the inmates will buy and cook their own food, clean, run the shop and enrol for education. They will also have access to a digital self-service system. Through this, the inmates can stay in contact with friends and family, communicate with service providers and staff, and keep an overview of their schedule, finances and belongings. The intention is to start the teaching of everyday skills earlier in the sentence, and to prepare inmates for release into a digital society.

Agder does indeed represent a modernisation of the correctional services, both building-wise and practice-wise. Many of today’s prisons are old and were originally built in a different time for a different purpose. Yet, there are several implications to this new and technologically innovative prison, as well as to portraying this as a ‘model for the future’. One of them is how the operation of this prison will look like in practice.

Over the last few years, the Norwegian correctional service has come to face annual budget cuts and a drive to maximise efficiencies. The new political order has become to build larger. We are closing down the smaller prisons and invest in the building, renovation and expansion of larger units. This priority combined with massive cuts has left little money for the operational running, which means low staffing, more isolation, and less time for activities and rehabilitation. As a consequence, ‘the model for the future’ might just turn into large buildings for temporary containment of inmates, rather than institutions for change and personal development.

In contemporary society, rehabilitation has come to be seen as the responsibility of the individual. This also seems to be the rationale behind the approach to rehabilitation in Agder fengsel. Although all people need to be motivated in order to drastically change their lives, there is good reason to believe that positive change is affected by the environment. Research on Norwegian prison size has found important results in this regard[4]:

  • While generally felt respected and cared for in small units, inmates in larger institutions more often felt a lack of individual care and concern.
  • The visibility of management in small units allows more instant decision-making, reducing the tension, stress and frustration linked to waiting for answers.
  • Small units are more often located closer to the inmates’ homes, making it easier for them to stay connected to their community and arrange visits from family and friends.

These factors are key in the process of rehabilitation and reintegration, as they allow inmates to focus on themselves rather than external disturbances.

An important argument which emerges out of these findings is the impact of staff/inmate relationships on the process of rehabilitation and reintegration. In large units, one may assume that these relationships get affected by the system, rules, regulations, and unpredictability. Control may consequently become more formalised. Static security could play a greater role than dynamic security, as inmates and staff tend to not get to know each other on a personal level to the same extent as what is possible in smaller units. Formalised relationships may prevent the staff from picking up on abnormal behaviour or problems faced by the inmate before it is too late. In smaller units, it appears to be the other way around[5]. Our humanistic principles seem easier to put into practice in small prisons for this exact reason. As the staff and inmates develop a personal relationship, inmates can more easily be met with respect, trust, dignity and understanding.

We know that inmates struggle with a wide variety of problems upon entry[6]. Some need someone to talk to, while others are at rock bottom. There are reasons to believe that rehabilitation through responsibility for daily tasks fit the needs and functional level of some, but far from everyone. Inmates constitute a complex group, and their wide spectrum of issues, needs, backgrounds, history and functional level has to be taken into account for rehabilitation to be effective. One may assume that this becomes difficult to manage in large units, where you only become one of many.

These factors imply that it is easier to facilitate good rehabilitation and reintegration in smaller and differentiated units. It allows for closer relationships and closer follow-up. It allows informal interaction, flexibility and discretion. It allows you to work on the problems you have, not the ones you should have. It allows you to be a person, and not an ‘inmate’ or an ‘officer’.

Yet, we build larger. Crime and punishment cost society an enormous amount of money. In a time where money is tight, it is easy to resort to short-term solutions. However, to invest in good correctional service and ‘punishment that works’ is good economics. A report prepared by Vista Analyse in 2014 concluded that it would save the society between 15 and 21 million NOK over 20 years if only one person returned to society as a law-abiding and tax-paying citizen[7]. And these are only the financial costs. A successful return will also ease pain and suffering on all parts involved in a criminal act. Last, but not least – for every person who returns to a law-abiding life, we will have at least one less victim. That in itself should be a good enough reason to invest in good correctional service, and differentiated imprisonment in detention houses.

[4] Johnsen, B., Granheim, P.K. and Helgesen, J. (2011). Exceptional prison conditions and the quality of prison life: Prison size and prison culture in Norwegian closed prisons. European Journal of Criminology. 8(6), 515-529; Johnsen, B, Granheim, PK (2011) Prison size and the quality of life in Norwegian closed prisons in late modernity. In: Ugelvik, T, Dullum, J (eds) Penal Exceptionalism? Nordic Prison Policy and Practice. London: Routledge.
[5] ibid.

Pieces to the Puzzle: Trying to Understand Steps Towards Prison Reform


Last year I began my exchange program at the University of Oslo. As a student in the US, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Norway for two semesters and I was very excited. There were many countries to choose from, but I specifically wanted to go to Norway because I had heard about their humane prisons and wanted to see if it was everything it was said to be. I realize that understanding a prison system is a holistic process that also requires understanding the culture, history, and economy of Norway. This would take a lifetime. So my experiences of the Norwegian prison system are small and biased. Nonetheless, I learned many valuable things while there.

In January I got plugged into a non-profit called Wayback. Before I arrived in August 2019, I had done a lot of research on various non-profits in Oslo that I could connect with. Wayback primarily works with people that have been previously incarcerated, so I thought it would be a great way to get to know more about the prison system. The people at the organization were all wonderfully kind and welcoming despite my poor Norwegian speaking skills. I mainly helped out with social events, such as lunches or weekly dinners. This was also a great opportunity for me to talk with the members and discuss their thoughts on the Norwegian prison system. I was fortunate to be able to interview one member more thoroughly. All of these interactions became pieces to the larger puzzle that I was trying to piece together on the issue of prisons.

Then, the director at Wayback suggested I help with a project, called RESCALED. He explained the concept to me and told me that Norway needed help getting a national coordinator. I could tell right away that RESCALED was a very important piece to the larger puzzle of incarceration. It offered an interesting solution to mass incarceration: small-scale, differentiated and community-integrated detention houses. This was the opposite direction that many countries, including Norway, were going in. So in this way, RESCALED seemed incredibly progressive and intriguing. I fortunately was able to stay involved with RESCALED once I stopped volunteering for Wayback. I continued to conduct research on Norwegian prisons and participate in idea-sharing and critical thinking.
“Large prisons turn prisoners into numbers, cells, bodies.”

I think that small-scale prisons can offer a lot to prison reform. Their design and concept would redeem human dignity on the inside by increasing the ratio between staff and insiders and seeing prisoners as future neighbors. Large prisons turn prisoners into numbers, cells, bodies. With large prisons, we cannot change the prison system. RESCALED represents an important direction in prison reform.

But a concept is only a concept until it is applied and application is highly dependent on the context and country. While some European countries, such as Belgium, have tangible examples of small-scale prisons, this is hard to find in the US. The US faces a completely different set of challenges in implementing small-scale prisons, maybe the biggest one being size. The US is known to have nearly 25% of the world’s prison population while only being 5% of the world’s population. Many have termed this enormous issue mass incarceration. Before the US would even be able to consider small-scale prisons, some major institutional changes would have to happen. First, mass incarceration would need to come to an end and more money needs to be put in alternatives to prison. This would decrease the population in prisons meaning that down-sizing would be more tangible. Second is cultural change. RESCALED works because people believe that prisoners deserve better treatment and that they are human. The prison system in the US is deeply rooted in racism and cultural misconceptions of crime and punishment.

“So while RESCALED is only one piece to the puzzle in both the US and Europe, I think it is an invaluable piece.”

While change is happening, it is slow and happens on a state-by-state basis. In Oregon, for example, some prison officials from Oregon State Penitentiary were involved in an exchange in Norway and a couple of other European countries. They visited more humane prisons and attended workshops on better practices. I think an ongoing exchange of ideas with better prison systems is essential in shifting the culture in the States. RESCALED could have an influence on the American concept of prisons, too. There are already some small-scale and community integrated institutions in the US, such as some juvenile detention centers and halfway houses, but these are generally an exception to the rule of large prisons. So while RESCALED is only one piece to the puzzle in both the US and Europe, I think it is an invaluable piece.

What prison for the world after the pandemic?

The virus in prison is going to be the death knell“. This sentence was read and heard from the first cases of the COVID-19 virus in France last March. And with good reason. Prisons are overcrowded. Despite the legal right to an individual cell (established in 1875), the law is not applied. Thus, on January 1, 2020, the occupancy rate of prisons was 116% with 70,651 prisoners for 61,080 places. Overcrowding mainly concerns remand prisons. These establishments receive two types of populations: persons awaiting trial and others who have been sentenced to short prison terms. The average occupancy rate of remand prisons is 138%. Concretely, two, three or more people are forced to share the same cell, some of them sleeping on the floor, on a mattress on the ground. France was condemned last January by the ECHR for its prison overcrowding and the undignified conditions in its prisons. Since the 1990s, the response of successive governments to prison overcrowding has been to create more prison places. Unsuccessfully… Mechanically, the more you build, the more you fill. But prison inflation in France is also largely the result of a penal system where prison is the reference sentence.


As early as March, many actors called for strong measures to avoid the dreaded hecatomb. First of all, to speed up exits from detention to ensure that a person in detention can be alone in his cell. The government has introduced orders for the early release of people sentenced to less than five years in prison with less than two months left to serve (excluding those convicted of terrorism or domestic violence) and reductions in sentences for people with good behaviour in detention. The decrease is also attributable to the reduced activity of the police and courts. Thus, in two months, the number of persons detained has been reduced by more than 13,500.


It took a health crisis to ensure that, for the first time in 20 years, there are fewer people in prison in France than there are prison places. There were 72,500 inmates for 61,000 places before the pandemic, the number had been reduced to 58,926 by 24 May 2020. But these figures hide disparities between prisons. Some prisons are still overcrowded.


Second, prison staff had to improve the material conditions of detention to prevent the spread of the epidemic. And the implementation of these measures was facilitated by the decrease in the number of people detained in the prisons. Certainly, having to take care of fewer persons facilitates the work of prison staff as well as the relations maintained with them. In addition, many persons in detention have responded by making cloth protective masks in prison. The workshops, which have been closed since the beginning of the confinement in March, have reopened and have enabled some people detained to have a salaried activity (it should nevertheless be remembered that people in detention are not subject to labour law and their remuneration is very low, between 20 and 35% of the minimum hourly wage, i.e. less than 5 euros per hour of work). The prison world has contributed, even in a confined area, to the national mobilization. The production however – about 5000 masks per day – is not directed towards the people in detention but towards the nursing and prison staff.


Thanks to the measures taken and the cooperation of the people in detention, the prison has largely been spared by the virus. From the beginning of the epidemic to the beginning of June, the prison administration has identified 66 prison staff and 186 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19.


The situation of overcrowding in French prisons is not inevitable, as the last few months have shown. Things can change if politicians show courage and take into account the demands of the actors mobilized on the issue for so many years. There has been no negative reaction from citizens to the reduction in the number of people in prison. Should this be seen as an opening up of the public to ambitious prison reforms?


Recent events force us to make prison visible and to talk about it when we would rather look away. We know that today’s prisons cause more damage than they solve. It is time to seize the opportunity presented by the health crisis to reflect on the meaning of sentencing and prison. What is the purpose of prison? How effective should it be? What kind of prison do we want for the years to come? Do we want large prisons in which it is difficult to control the spread of disease? These are complex questions that question, among other things, the architectural design of the prison (organization of space, location) and the place of the prison in society.
Picture of Fleury-Mérogis remand prison.


Reform movements in prison are not new. But what are the concrete solutions proposed? How can we think of prison differently? The RESCALED movement proposes a paradigm shift. What if we replaced the current prisons with detention houses? As the name suggests, these institutions operate on the model of a house: a small number of people are taken in and offered individualized support. For France, this is an important change. Instead of the gigantic size of several French prisons (the Fleury-Mérogis remand prison, whose construction was completed in 1968, is now the largest prison in Europe with 2855 operational places), RESCALED proposes a change of scale. It is a different way of looking at detention from the point of view of both detained persons and staff. Taking care of 10 to 30 people in a detention house allows for a more personal follow-up, relations and attention compared to the management of hundreds of persons. But while size is an essential prerequisite, the detention house also operates on two other pillars: differentiation and integration into the community. Detention houses differ according to the level of security and the programs offered. And they are not isolated from the rest of society but interact with the surrounding environment. People in detention can use the public services (medical-psycho-social, cultural, sports, etc.) offered to people “outside” and through their activities carried out in the house (catering, market gardening, repair workshops, etc.), they participate in the social, economic and cultural development of the neighbourhood.


The three pillars complement each other and work together to ensure that people are released from detention house in such a way that they can be reintegrated into society. You go into prison, you also come out of prison. But overall, the current conditions of detention do not allow for proper reintegration and rehabilitation.


There are many proposals to build a new world in different fields, ecology, economy, work, health… Let’s do the same with the prison.

Rescaled: prisons in the city

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

Belgium takes first step towards a new penitentiary paradigm: the use of transition houses

The first Belgian transition house for prisoners has been officially inaugurated today by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Koen Geens: “It is important to give a detainee the opportunity to prepare for reintegration in society. I am pleased to be able to open the first transition house in Belgium today. The prisoner serving the last part of his prison sentence will be given the opportunity to work intensively on his return to society. Mechelen is doing its part in creating a safer society.” – On 14 January 2020 a second transition house will be set up in the Walloon municipality of Enghien/Edingen.

Belgium makes a first step towards small scale detention houses. A very special moment to celebrate! But first let’s take a look back at this interesting story and where it all began.


The major issues facing prisons today are broadly known. They can no longer be denied. Not a day goes by without someone criticising our prison system. Drug use, suicide, violence, staffing shortages, strikes, overcrowding, high degree of recidivism, unhygienic living conditions, condemnations by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and so on. The large prisons of a bygone era clearly show up negatively. The fact that their problems cause constant commotion in society indicates a great dissatisfaction with the system. These problems are not new, but society expects more from the prison system than before, and rightly so.

Hans Claus, Prison Governor in Oudenaarde and founder of VZW De Huizen, challenged the system: “Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!” If we are to solve the current problems effectively, we must resolutely opt for a new penitentiary paradigm, namely small-scale detention houses.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!”

From the beginning it was the intention to really change things. “It is not the intention to just think about the prison system, we actually want to change the system also”. The development of a coherent concept was an important first step, but it was certainly not the ultimate goal. VZW De Huizen has always focused on getting into contact with politicians, after all, they decide whether the concept is translated into reality. In addition, the members of VZW De Huizen try to reach the wider public each in his/her own way by organising lectures, workshops and musical evenings. VZW De Huizen is expanding its network by contacting schools, universities, cultural centres and attending major events.


The hard work at all levels and the many contacts are paying off. In 2016 Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, presented a master plan for prisons. This plan aims to reduce overcrowding in prisons and renew infrastructure. It is also intended to better adapt the infrastructure to the reintegration of prisoners and provide alternatives to the traditional manner of enforcing sentences. The overall vision of the master plan is based on four pillars, one of which is a differentiated detention policy with transition houses. In November 2016 this plan was approved by the Council of Ministers. The first hurdle was taken.

In July 2018 the government issued a call for applications. Organisations got the opportunity to submit a file with the Federal Justice Service that should present a clear vision on how to run a transition house and contain a proposal regarding internal rules, as well as a plan that clearly describes how the project can be implemented in the neighbourhood. Thirteen organisations submitted a file. For Wallonia eight candidates were selected, in Flanders seven candidates successfully passed the selection procedure. Some of them put forward their candidacy for both Flanders and Wallonia.

After completing the procedure G4S was selected to open two transition houses, one in Mechelen and another one in Enghien/Edingen a few months later. Of course, questions can be asked about this choice. Is it morally acceptable to entrust detention of fellow citizens to a for-profit company? Even if it does not actually make a profit? Should we cross this line? Don’t we all know that commercialization of prisons has often had deplorable results?


We, along with some members of VZW De Huizen, got the opportunity to visit the transition house in Mechelen. It is nice to see how a concept that we have been thinking about for so many years has finally been translated into something tangible in practice. The first small-scale detention house is no longer a dream and is now part of the existing penal system.

The transition house in Mechelen, where 15 inmates are preparing for life after prison, is located in the city centre. The prisoners who are staying in the house are still ‘detained’. They are not yet released on parole and are not allowed to freely walk in and out the house. These prisoners, who sometimes have been in prison for a long time, need ‘transition’. In a transition house the focus is on the future, not on the past. This is called a strength-based approach. During his stay every prisoner is supported by a strength coach to prepare themselves for adjusting to life after prison. The key components of the reintegration plan are: housing, work, establishing relationships and the need for fulfilment. The aim is that prisoners should be self-reliant in an increasingly complex society.

Life in a transition house is normalised and life coaches assist in ensuring the smooth running of the day-to-day. Each prisoner has to do his own laundry and is responsible for preparing his own meals. They all have a room offering complete privacy, but everyday tasks take place in common areas. The prisoners’ sense of community is stimulated in this way and they also learn to assume responsibility.



We are already looking forward to the progress of these two wonderful projects.


In February 2020 we heard a positive story of a prisoner who is no longer in the transition house of Mechelen and who is currently under electronic monitoring. He talked about his experiences in an interview he gave to a newspaper. He said that the prison made him brain dead. The transition house opened up new possibilities.

You get the opportunity to take your life into your own hands again and participate fully in society.”

Master plan III provides for transition houses with a total of 100 places. At this moment there is a one-year pilot project providing places for 30 prisoners in the transition houses in Mechelen and in Enghien/Edingen. After a positive evaluation, the number of places will be extended to 100 throughout Belgium.

VZW De Huizen takes pride in the fact that policymakers finally support our concept. These two wonderful projects are the result of it. But it certainly does not stop here. We continue to advocate a completely new penitentiary paradigm. We hope there will be more transition houses but we are also focusing on detention houses for young adults and prisoners serving a short sentence. In this way we want to get each target group out of the prison system and provide accommodation in small-scale detention houses. We hope that our country will focus completely on a detention policy with detention houses, to put an end to the outdated prison system that has a mainly negative effect on prisoners.

The transition houses in Belgium are a good start but they are only a first step in the right direction.

La ferme de Moyembrie

In Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, about a two-hour drive from the heart of Paris, there is a homestead that may be compared to an airport.

In 1990, a couple of retired agriculture engineers, Jacques and Geneviève Pluvinage, decided to invest their life savings in the purchase of a 24-hectare plot, planning to work and live there, welcoming people excluded from society that had nowhere else to live. Jacques, who was also a visitor in a local prison, began to receive letters from inmates that were about to be released, but without any support and without knowing where to go. Jacques and Geneviève were willing to welcome in their homestead these people, with whom they shared family life, the fieldwork, and all the incomes from production. Thus, the way was paved for “La Ferme de Moyembrie”, a place that still exists today, with an ever more enlightened and delimited vocation.

In the early 2000’s, a penalty enforcement judge discovered the homestead and launched the challenge for “La Ferme de Moyembrie” to start welcoming sentenced persons who were not yet released, but who were serving time under a regime of placement outside a prison facility (‘placement à l’extérieur’ or work release).

In 2004, the first agreements were formally signed with the Reintegration Prison Services that gave La Ferme de Moyembrie the statute of a “placement à l’extérieur”, making it possible for the homestead to accommodate detainees, in order to prepare them for release.


La Ferme de Moyembrie still exists today, with the same vocation and is co-directed by Jean-Claude Simon and Éric de Villeroché, who generously welcomes all those who want to get familiarised with the work developed in the homestead, while emphasising that a “one-day visit will always fall below an in-depth knowledge of the true essence of that place”.

La Ferme de Moyembrie reckons that work plays a structural role in reintegration. The residents work and live in the homestead. Éric says that, from the foundation of the project, the invitation for the inmates is “you come, you live and work here, we work and live together, in a worthy and useful job and we live from that same work, from what we produce”.

You come, you live and work here, we work and live together, in a worthy and useful job and we live from that same work, from what we produce.

All residents work in activities in the homestead which can be related to agriculture, the rearing of goats and laying hens, the production of cheese and yogurt, cooking and the construction or maintenance of machines and vehicles. Each resident celebrates, to that effect, a social insertion contract that predicts 20 hours of weekly work.

Special skills and abilities aren’t required, but the approach to work is professional and the economic challenges are real: La Ferme de Moyembrie is a certified homestead in organic agriculture that compromised itself to provide 140 vegetable baskets per weak, during the entire year. The professional work educates for responsibility and gives back structure and organisation to the everyday life of the residents. Éric explains that organic agriculture has two special variants: the evidence of fruitful rewards in the production – enhancing a sense of pride for the achieved results – and the act of “taking care of the earth and the animals, which is an invitation to take care of life, the self and the others”.

The residents work in the farm and live in a house therein. Each resident has a key for their individual room, where they can receive visits and restore intimacy bonds. Only this way the residents can regain the privacy that was taken from them during imprisonment. “The first night of the residents is always tumultuous, many of them can’t sleep”, says Éric. “And notice, we are in a calm and silent village. These people were deprived of their own space for so long that they don’t know how to deal with silence and with a safety and privacy environment anymore

The daily routine seeks to be as similar as possible with the reality after release. The breakfast is served in the common meals room. The work journey starts at 8am and ends by 12am, with a brief pause for coffee in the middle of the morning. At 12:15am the lunch is served and necessarily shared. After lunch, there’s a free schedule so the residents relearn to manage their own time. All of them are encouraged to move forward on priority issues and are supported in their efforts. Some, if they wish so, attend driving lessons, courses or specific trainings – such as creative writing or relaxation – others have the initiative to suggest recreational activities within the community or take advantage of this time to start restoring ties with their loved ones, to regularise their administrative situation or to legalise their residence. The community dinner is served at 7pm, but residents can choose to dine on their own. Some activities, with voluntary adhesion, also occur at night and may consist of a simple shopping trip or of badminton and football trainings at local sports associations, on a weekly basis.

Family and friends’ visits take place on weekends from 9am to 7pm. Community life in the homestead, just like any other, isn’t always easy. There is a relearning to be done at this level as well. For this reason, every Monday afternoon there is a pivotal moment of reflection in plenary, where the previous week is evaluated and the following week is projected. During that time, responsibilities for house dynamics are also divided and shifts are defined to help prepare meals and clean common areas.

At the core of the success of this project are the life rules that are clearly displayed and explained to residents and relate to hygiene (personal and spatial), work, daily life, prohibited consumptions and mutual respect. The latter is an inviolable principle at La Ferme de Moyembrie, where no physical violence is allowed and where it is expressly “forbidden to evoke the past” as a weapon of verbal violence. It is even a rule of the homestead that residents do not reveal the crime they have committed, as a means to prevent the perpetuation between them of hierarchies which, in the common system, tend to be established on the basis of the crime committed.



When questioned about the process of selecting the residents, Éric starts by clarifying a point that he finds less expectable: the crime committed by an inmate is irrelevant, as are the skills that he may have acquired in the past to carry out the works developed on the homestead.

This project, as it exists today, was born from letters that, in 1990, inmates would write to the founder of the homestead. Thirty years later, this tradition continues. The access to La Ferme de Moyembrie is voluntary: any inmate can write to the homestead, asking to live there. After a first visit by a volunteer of the project to the inmate’s prison facilities, the candidate visits La Ferme de Moyembrie for a day, contacting for the first time with the reality of the homestead and having the opportunity to talk individually with all the supervisors present in the homestead that day, which range from 4 to 8 and may include Éric or Jean-Claude.


This conversation will be determinant for the selection of residents. Éric explains that “there isn’t a scientific method for this selection. The key element in the decision is trying to understand and perceive whether there is a genuine interest in breaking the cycle of crime, for whatever reason. There must be a willingness to change the paradigm, to not repeat an offence.” In any case, the final decision will be up to the penalty enforcement judge, who is responsible for determining that the inmate will serve the final phase of his sentence under a regime of placement outside a prison facility.

Usually, the period of residence on the homestead extends from the 6 months to 1 year preceding the release. Although some exceptions may be made to this rule, residents shall be 25 years or older. In fact, since sentences tend to be long, the final phase of their execution usually occurs beyond young age.


The project’s financial sustainability is guaranteed by revenue coming from different sources. La Ferme de Moyembrie receives from the prison administration a daily amount of €35.00 per resident. This value is three times lower than the cost that the same resident would represent if incarcerated in the common prison system. About 25% of the project’s budget is covered by the resources of the homestead, namely by the sale of produced products. In addition to these amounts, the salary due to residents, by virtue of their “social insertion contracts”, is paid by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. A portion of that salary is withheld to pay a pension to La Ferme de Moyembrie, as contribution for the residents’ accommodation and food costs.

The project also receives public funding, namely grants for the prevention of delinquency and for social cohesion. The use of patronage or private financing is used only for material and concrete projects, such as the improvement of buildings and machinery used in the work of the estate.

We are asked how we are planning to grow”, says Éric. And he adds: “We don’t want to grow, at least not in terms of numbers in this homestead. The secret of this project’s success also relies on our small dimension, which allows us to keep a close relationship with each one of the 20 residents”.

The secret of this project’s success also relies on our small dimension, which allows us to keep a close relationship with each one of the 20 resident


This placement à l’extérieur manages, not only matters regarding logistics and spaces, but also the residents’ routines and security. There are no prison guards in the homestead. This is perhaps the most representative indicator of one of the key elements to the success of this project: the principle of trust in the residents. The experience of being trusted can be transformative in any circumstance, but this transformative potential is enhanced when there is a risk or a space to let down.

The absence of prison guards and of a permanent control of residents, either by caution or by default, holds them accountable. Éric says that, over the years, he witnessed miracles of transformation at La Ferme de Moyembrie triggered by this attitude of trust that residents are not used to in the common prison system. “Especially because they come from an environment of distrust between them, distrust of themselves, distrust of the justice system”, explains the co-president. Trust is also in the small details: each resident’s room, which must be clean and organised according to the house’s rules of life, is also a private area per excellence and, for this reason, it is never visited, except by invitation.

During the 24 hours of the 7 days of the week, there is always in the homestead a representative of La Ferme de Moyembrie, either a volunteer or an employee, who the residents can call if needed. As a rule, and under the law, the residents’ leaves must be authorised by a judge. In practical terms, those who are in charge of La Ferme de Moyembrie (be it the co-presidents or the supervisors) have delegated powers to authorise, in writing, leaves related to health matters, employment or reintegration.

Despite the absence of prison guards, there are points of contact between La Ferme de Moyembrie and the common prison system. The homestead is visited every two weeks, by a representative of the Reintegration Council of the nearby prison facility, where a good half of the residents were serving sentence before being admitted to La Ferme de Moyembrie. In such regular visits, individual talks with each resident take place, in order to evaluate their situation and to establish a connection between them and the court, if needed.

Security is also based on a clear definition of the fundamental rules for the proper functioning of the homestead. The violation of these rules necessarily implies consequences, which, depending on the gravity of the situation, can range from a formal warning by the court to a return to the common prison system.


The relationship with the enlarged community started to be worked on from the first moment, by Jacque and Geneviève, who were an esteemed couple in the community and maintained a close relationship with the local authorities. The founders had an early sensitivity that still remains today in Moyembrie: that, although a real reintegration of ex-offenders requires the involvement of society, there are fears in local communities that cannot be underestimated, namely regarding the risk which is commonly associated with interaction with people who, at some point in their life, committed a crime. In order to avoid a counterproductive social alarm, these fears from the communities should not be disregarded, but rather deconstructed daily, through personal knowledge of concrete stories.

Nowadays, explains Éric, residents give life to the local economic activities, not only for the goods they produce but also for the services they consume locally and for they make themselves known, approaching the community and deconstructing negative myths that tend to be associated with prisoners and ex-prisoners.

The community’s involvement is even reflected by the local Maire (Mayor) – who is an ex officio member (‘membre de droit’) of the association’s board of directors – and by his wife, a volunteer in the kitchen of La Ferme de Moyembrie. The preparation of the residents’ future also covers their personal relationships, either within the family or friendship circles. On average, 70% of residents receive visits on weekends or visit their loved ones during permitted leaves.


La Ferme de Moyembrie receives annually around 50 residents, responding to just 1/3 of the 150 requests for admission that the project receives. Since 2000, more than 500 people have benefited from this project. Each resident stays on the homestead for an average of 9 months, a time that must be delimited and is considered sufficient to intermediate a life in freedom: La Ferme de Moyembrie must serve as a springboard for an exit that is desired to happen. All residents have a housing solution once they leave the homestead and, in the three subsequent months, 60% of the ex‑residents find a life orientation or occupation, whether it is a job, training, retirement or integration in an Emmaus community.

La Ferme de Moyembrie also impacts the lives of 40 volunteers and 9 employees, hired not only to supervise agricultural or technical activities (such as farming, cheese production, livestock and maintenance of vehicles), but also to manage the daily life of the farm: these workers provide social support for residents, develop partnerships and make part of the decisions to welcome or exclude a resident.

Generally, in France, the recidivism rate between ex‑inmates who served part of their sentence in a ‘placement à l’extérieur’ is lower than the one verified amongst ex-inmates who entirely served their sentence in the common prison system. That being said, the impact of La Ferme de Moyembrie on recidivism isn’t easy to measure because some former residents gradually lose contact with the homestead. Éric explains that this lack of contact is often a good sign. “There is a cycle that comes to closure in their lives – that of serving a sentence – and a new cycle that is generated, that regenerates them.” La Ferme de Moyembrie, despite being a ‘placement à l’extérieur’, is still where they served a sentence and, to that extent, is associated with an old cycle. On the other hand, there are former residents who, by their own choice, keep in touch with the homestead and do so as a form of gratitude, essentially to share with Éric and the other employees of La Ferme de Moyembrie the progress they have achieved.


La Ferme de Moyembrie is a transformed project. It started by being a shelter for people excluded from society and it was transformed into a house for ex‑prisoners, to be, nowadays, a transition house before and towards freedom. At the time of its foundation, it did not aspire to be what it is today. It became what it had to be, as it responded to the needs felt. And it did so, says Éric, through a solid and committed team of “people who, much more than being competent for the work they do there, deeply identify with the values of La Ferme de Moyembrie” and make a choice for simplicity in living together with residents. The governance of the project is shared amongst all, in a horizontal and not vertical logic. In the words of Simon, one of the supervisors hired at La Ferme de Moyembrie, “on the farm, we try to make all decisions within the team, collectively, and also make as many decisions as possible together with the residents”.

It is a transformed project that transforms lives both inside and outside. Upon their arrival at the homestead, residents are accompanied to a general medical visit, where an individualised health plan is designed. The La Ferme de Moyembrie takes care of the residents’ image because it believes that the outside triggers the most important inner work of self-esteem and awareness of our intrinsic dignity.

And lives are transformed gradually. “While imprisoned, these men dream of what they will be able to do after release. The period in the homestead, more than a timefor dreaming is a time for readjustment”, explains Éric. The 9-month period at La Ferme de Moyembrie shall be an opportunity to relearn the reality, to normalise routines and to reconnect with the self and personal ties.


One of the residents, in his testimony, says that when he got out of prison he was really lost. “I no longer knew what money was. To buy a laptop, I gave the employee my wallet and said, “Help yourself”. I didn’t understand anything and was lost. Now I am ready to get out and capable of trusting.” In Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, there is a homestead that might be compared to an airport since it is an intermediate place for freedom.

Life’s a train. When we leave a train, he doesn’t wait for us. We can’t release prisoners from prison with their belongings inside a bin bag and say: “That’s it, you’re free”. Is that freedom? Without money, without anything? No. The passage through the homestead, for one year, with time and support for us to rebuild ourselves, that indeed, is the beginning of freedom.”

Philippe’s Testimony (ex-resident), available at


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