Netherlands fills empty jails with inmates from Norway as falling crime rates leave more guards than prisoners

Falling crime rate means it can take prisoners from neighbouring countries

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Dutch authorities have an unusual problem: with crime rates falling and judges favouring non-custodial sentences, there are now more guards than prisoners in the densely populated nation known for its liberal approach to social justice. But while authorities in countries struggling with prison overcrowding may look enviously upon the rows of empty cells, not everyone is happy.

“It’s not good news for people working in the jails,” said Jaap Oosterveer, spokesman for the Dutch ministry of justice. So they have come up with an innovative solution. Today, justice officials from the Netherlands and Norway met at one of the underpopulated prisons and signed a deal: the Dutch will provide the cells if the Norwegians provide the inmates.

Over the next three years – pending approval from the Dutch and Norwegian parliaments – about 250 convicts from Norway will serve their time at the Norgerhaven prison in the north of the Netherlands, and 240 Dutch people will remain employed: “That’s why we’re doing this with the Norwegians today – to make sure we don’t have to fire people,” said Mr Oosterveer.

While the Dutch are largely happy, it may be a culture shock for some of the incoming convicts. Norway’s prisons are famous for their luxurious facilities including saunas, spas, tennis courts and flat-screen TVs, all in picturesque wooded surrounds.  No special adjustments will be made at the 19th-century Norgerhaven complex. “The jail is going to stay the same,” Mr Oosterveer told The Independent.


But the prison governor will be Norwegian, and all the Dutch staff will be trained in Norwegian prison rules. As the Dutch State Secretary for Justice, Fred Teeven, explained in a speech today: “That means a prison without isolation cells for punishment, and without a common visitors’ room. Prisoners receive their visitors in private. And it means observing Norwegian public holidays.”

Norway needs the cells as an overhaul of its jails means a shortage of space, and the first prisoners should arrive on 1 September. The Norwegian government will cover the €25m-a-year (£18.2m) cost of housing the prisoners, but the Dutch will not make a profit on the deal. They have a similar arrangement with Belgium, which has sent 500 inmates to serve their sentences in the Netherlands.

This follows a gradual decline in the number of inmates in the Netherlands. Last year the official prison population dropped to just 9,710, and for the first time guards outnumbered prisoners, with 9,914 correction officers in the country. That compares with a US figure of around five prisoners per guard. Mr Oosterveer attributes the fall to lower crime rates and a growing focus on rehabilitation over long jail sentences. This means shorter sentences, more electronic tagging, and investment in programmes focused on job skills and re-entry into the community.

But some of the Dutch population who do end up behind bars are not happy with the arrangement. Eighteen current inmates at Norgerhaven have gone to court to try  to block the deal with Norway, saying they are at risk of being turfed out of the facility to make way for Norwegians.

Prisoners’ organisations have also raised concerns about the human rights implications of housing inmates in a separate country. Family visits will be more difficult if they have to travel across borders, while the guards and inmates will also speak different languages.