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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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.