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Environment / Climate change

The Netherlands has too many prisons, so this is what it’s doing with them

A decline in the prison population of the Netherlands, coupled with one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe – almost half that of the UK – has led to the importing of foreign prisoners and some surprising uses for empty Dutch jails.

Here are some of the wackiest ways in which unwanted prisons are being repurposed.

A School

Parents enrolling their children at the €14k+ a year British School of Amsterdam can be sure that their offspring will be taught in secure surroundings, although the word ‘detention’ is likely to bring back murky memories. The school’s new building is a former prison and is due to reopen its once heavily-bolted doors in 2020.

The Havenstraat campus, in Amsterdam’s expat heartland to the south of the city, is one of several new schools being built to address a shortage of international education for an expanding international workforce. In a statement on its Union-Jack-emblazoned website, principal Paul Morgan promises that the 13,500 m2 former jail with its 1,200 pupil capacity, will still have a “small-school, family feel”.

A Hammam

The Bijlmerbajes penitentiary is still a good place to get clean, even though the inmates have all been moved on. A total of 15 cells within the vast jail have been converted to a Hammam complex, providing facilities to steam, enjoy a full-body scrub, bathe and get a massage.

Image: Bijlmer Hammam.

It is the country’s first Syrian hammam and provides work opportunities for refugees from the asylum centre which occupies a neighbouring wing. The graffiti from the previous occupants remains as a reminder of bitter times past.

Guests can complete the luxury experience – and support other refugee workers – by dining in the prison’s new pop-up restaurant A Beautiful Mess or overnighting in the newly-opened Movement Hotel (see above for a pic). You might be sleeping in a converted cell, but you do have custody of the keys to your room.

A Children’s Party

The kids at the parties held at Leeuwarden’s Blokhuispoort prison in the north of the Netherlands are unlikely to be running wild. Caronen Entertainment lock up the little mischief-makers as part of their jolly prison-themed birthday celebrations. Children get a tour of the building and make their own robber’s mask in one of the cells. The medieval prison, which closed in 2007, has been extensively renovated and remodelled over the years, but the gothic spires and moated entrance remain a formidable sight.

An Escape Room

Wannabe criminals can don a boiler suit and step into their own adrenalin-filled prison drama with Prison Escape’s interactive escape room concept. Set in Breda’s dramatic Boschpoort prison, with its epic turrets and dome, the aim of the game is to escape and players have just three hours to work out how. The challenge begins in your cell with an unknown cellmate and ends, if you are successful, with freedom.

Image: Prison Escape.

At almost £60 a ticket, Prison Escape is not cheap, but then how many escape rooms involve an authentic setting, a cast of 80 actors, and up to 400 participant inmates?

A Restaurant

The chefs at the De Lik restaurant in Utrecht’s Wolvenplein prison won’t be doing porridge these days; instead diners can now expect a five-course meal.

Opened in March 2017, the restaurant prioritises organic, native ingredients and offers a surprise menu based on what’s seasonal and fresh.

 

Image: Restaurant De Lik.

The long waiting list is a testament to the success of this unusual dining experience, which is available just three times a month and likely to be short-lived as the council has plans to sell the building.

The tables butt up against cell doors in the long prison corridor and the galleried floor overhead creates an unsettling view, as if – at any minute – a group of detainees might emerge from the cells above. Speaking to news platform GreaterVenues.com in March, operational manager Freek van Kooten said the caterers hoped to create “a casual, laid-back atmosphere” with the new restaurant.


An Asylum Centre

For refugees new to the Netherlands, the long wait for your residency permit can feel a lot like serving time, and all the more so if you are being temporarily housed in a former jail.

Facilities to accommodate newcomers have been improvised from several of the country’s disused prisons, creating – In the best cases – pop-up communities offering language support, apprenticeships and even – at the Lola Lik in Amsterdam – a refugee radio station.

Residents who violate the centre’s rules or intimidate members of the community, risk being moved to yet another ex-jail, the Amsterbaken, in Amsterdam, a former juvenile detention centre for 14-23 year-olds.

Like the experimental prison which preceded it, the centre for troublesome asylum-seekers has a strict regime but allows residents to come and go.

Housing traumatised migrants in prisons has provoked debate in the Netherlands, and the Amsterbaken initiative, in particular, has come under attack from some refugee organisations. Speaking in the Volkskrant  earlier this year, Vluchtelingen Werk Nederland argued that it was not a case of simply “weeding out a few rotten apples” but instead improving the poor living conditions in these makeshift centres, which, they say, create a breeding ground for violence.

What Next?

As crime rates continue to drop in the Netherlands, the conversion of jails is likely to continue. The new uses are creative, clever and often controversial. But perhaps most innovative of all is the Netherlands’ progressive approach to law and order, which has made so many prisons defunct.

With the long-term trend showing a steep increase in incarceration in the UK, further investigation into the Dutch model and alternative strategies for both the prevention and treatment of crime seem the sensible way forward. Besides, Wormwood Scrubs is a great name for a hammam.

Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British journalist based in the Netherlands. She tweets at @DebNichollsLee.
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