Repur­pos­ing empty Dutch pris­ons

Life be­hind bars gets a new twist in empty Dutch pris­ons


Voices echo around the mag­nif­i­cent, lu­mi­nous dome of Breda prison, break­ing the si­lence of the 130-year-old build­ing, now empty of in­mates like dozens of oth­ers in The Nether­lands.

Fall­ing crime rates over the last decade, as well as chang­ing ideas about pun­ish­ing crim­i­nals, have robbed this pen­i­ten­tiary of its orig­i­nal pur­pose, and its gates clanged shut in 2014.

Built in 1886, it was pos­si­ble to watch ev­ery­thing hap­pen­ing in the prison from its cen­tral court­yard un­der the main dome—a clas­sic ex­am­ple of the 18th cen­tury so­cial the­ory of Panop­ti­cism on pas­sive be­hav­ior when peo­ple are con­stantly ob­served, first mooted by the English philoso­pher Jeremy Ben­tham and later built upon by his French coun­ter­part Michel Fou­cault.

Metal spi­ral stair­cases snake all around the dome down to the for­mer can­teen un­der the glass floor. Old sports ar­eas are marked out on con­crete; all are sur­rounded by cells stacked four sto­ries high, their now-rusted doors swing­ing open.

Un­like the pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pants, some 90 busi­nesses hold the keys to the build­ing, free to come and go at will.

“A lot of his­tory”

Miguel de Waard, co-founder of the 3D Red Panda VR start-up, is among those who be­lieve they have found a per­fect of­fice lo­ca­tion, help­ing give new life to a pro­tected na­tional mon­u­ment.

“It ac­tu­ally feels like not a prison any more. If you look around, it looks like a prison of course, but with all those start-ups, it’s got new en­ergy,”

“We just in­stantly fell in love with this par­tic­u­lar of­fice: the high ceil­ing, the nice touches and the big win­dows and the light­ing,” de Waard told AFP.

“We don’t see bars, I think, when we look out­side; we just see a beau­ti­ful part of Breda.”

But he ac­knowl­edged the past has cast long shad­ows. “Ev­ery time we en­ter the dome or the women’s prison, it’s pretty dark, that’s true. And there’s a lot of his­tory, and some­times you can feel it as well,” he said.

“The first time we were here and we had the keys, we were, like, wan­der­ing around at night in the dark, and it’s a pretty amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

From cells to restau­rants

There are now only 38 pris­ons still in op­er­a­tion in The Nether­lands, with 27 closed since 2014.

Six were sold for about 20.7 mil­lion euros ($23 mil­lion), while oth­ers have been rented out, of­ten as cen­ters for asy­lum seek­ers, bring­ing in a to­tal of around 18 mil­lion euros.

Af­ter leap­ing crime rates swelled Europe’s prison pop­u­la­tion in the ’90s, num­bers in The Nether­lands have dropped thanks, in part, to pre­ven­tion pro­grams and a greater fo­cus on re-in­te­gra­tion.

“Judges are sen­tenc­ing peo­ple in dif­fer­ent ways. Not more lightly, but dif­fer­ently, with com­mu­nity ser­vice, or an­kle bracelets and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion clin­ics,” said An­neloes van Box­tel, who ad­min­is­ters the in­te­rior min­istry’s real es­tate.

Crimes fell some 26 per­cent be­tween 2007 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial Cen­tral Statis­tics Bu­reau.

In a decade, the num­ber of peo­ple im­pris­oned ev­ery year in The Nether­lands fell from 50,650 in 2005 to 37,790 in 2015. And the rate of in­car­cer­a­tion stands at 57 pris­on­ers per 100,000 res­i­dents, com­pared with 458 in the United States.

So the Dutch have sought to put their empty cells to good use.

A de­ten­tion cen­tre in north­ern Veen­huizen has been rented out—guards in­cluded—to Nor­way to house its own in­mates. A for­mer women’s jail in north­east­ern Zwolle is now an award-win­ning restau­rant.

With a 60-mil­lion-euro price tag, a pen­i­ten­tiary in Am­s­ter­dam Over­am­s­tel is to be trans­formed into a new res­i­den­tial district with thou­sands of homes. And a cen­tre in Haar­lem, bought by the lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­ity for 6.4 mil­lion euros, will open its doors in 2019 as a univer­sity col­lege.

New buzz

In Breda, the prison and its 33,302 sq. m. (358,330 sq. ft.) of space was handed over to a spe­cial body in 2016 to be re-used for “so­cial” projects.

“That was our big­gest chal­lenge: to open the prison again,” said Mandy Jak, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mar­ket­ing ad­vi­sor for the VPS as­so­ci­a­tion.

But in­ter­est has been huge, with some 300 peo­ple swiftly sign­ing up to move in.

“It ac­tu­ally feels like not a prison any more. If you look around, it looks like a prison of course, but with all those start-ups, it’s got new en­ergy,” she added.

How­ever, one sum­mer evening, new “in­mates” were spot­ted, as about 350 peo­ple were once again locked in, tak­ing part in per­haps the ul­ti­mate “Prison Es­cape” adult ad­ven­ture game that have be­come pop­u­lar in many coun­tries. Bar­ri­caded into the cells, par­tic­i­pants have to plot an es­cape over three hours with the help of some 80 ac­tors.

But once rid of these thrill-seek­ers, the build­ing again sank into si­lence. Un­til the next busi­ness day.

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