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

The World of Tomorrow

A virus has changed our world from one day to the next. Things that we still took for granted in early March might no longer be normal tomorrow. People are experiencing how dependent they are on each other. It turned out to be an illusion to see the individual as completely independent of the collective. There is again room for fraternity in society. Solidarity is the new motto. At the same time, the call to go back to “normal” is getting louder and louder in the media. But what is normal in society? What is normal about prisons?

And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,
So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of us all.” – Khalil Gibran

Is it normal for real estate agents to make millions from thousands of people to buy one more Porsche in a different color? Is it normal for large corporations that have become dependent on the government due to Covid-19 to continue to pay bonuses to the company’s top executives who are already making millions? Is it normal for us to have prisons? Huge buildings that we stuff with people. Is it surprising that thousands of people in prisons in the Netherlands had psychological complaints before entering prison? That many people in prison are in debt with state agencies and that almost 100 percent of the young people in detention come from a family with problems? Were these not signs on the wall? As a collective, we have structurally limited opportunities for hundreds of thousands of citizens who were already struggling to become part of our society. We have created barriers for them to form an identity that matters in society long before they committed any crimes. We made them strangers among us and then punished them for that.

Last year I read a beautiful book by Stefan Zweig: The world of yesterday: memories of a European. In it he describes his life before and during two world wars. It reads like an adventure novel and I saw it play out before my eyes like a movie. In disbelief, I read about yesterday’s world. The severe poverty that Europe ended up in after the First World War, houses that lost their value and were exchanged for food. Back then, Europe had to reinvent itself. The corona crisis gives us an opportunity to do so again.

In the future we will perhaps no longer see prisoners or criminals,
but people who have not succeeded in becoming part of society.

Prisons symbolize only two of the three liberal values, equality and freedom, and that in the most minimalist form. There is little room for fraternity. The idea of ​​ fraternity, fraternité, dates back to the French Revolution, the influential political revolution that shaped European liberal democracy. The realization that every human life was of equal value took central stage. Fraternity can be seen as the connection between an individual and different communities that a person feels part of. Communities in which people take care of each other. Community in the broadest sense of the word can be a primitive community, a family or a more developed form of community, such as a neighborhood, company, institution, city or even country. So communities are always an integral part of the individual, and vice versa. There is a circular process of influence between an individual and the community. And it is precisely prison that breaks this connection in every possible way. Therefore, there can never be normalization in a prison. Normal would be a small-scale detention house. Just as we created small-scale houses in psychiatry and elderly care, we can make detention houses for people who are sentenced. In the future we will perhaps no longer see prisoners or criminals, but people who have not succeeded in becoming part of society

Today’s world may become yesterday’s world. Fraternity has become part of our communities again as a result of the corona crisis. Politicians call on people to take care of each other. Wouldn’t it be great if the rich real estate dealers share half of their assets with their tenants? What if all corporate CEOs voluntarily hand over their bonuses, and wages above a certain amount of income, to the state, who can distribute it better to the people? And what if, as icing on the cake, we close prisons one by one and build small scale detention houses in towns and villages? We have the opportunity now to rebuild communities in such a way that we really care for and support each other long before things go wrong.

The world of yesterday was not so normal, nor is today’s world. On to the world of tomorrow!