The Hotel Prisons of the Netherlands…Because Reformation and Discipline Do Matter

(Published in Al-mary Al-youm, 15/5/2015)

the writer inside the cafeteria of the prison


Clean floors, walls with bright color paintings, modern furniture, excellent food, spacious sunny playgrounds, modern gymnasiums, rooms for studying or music or painting, a huge shopping market and top-notch health care.

That was not a description of a resort at Cairo’s Fifth Settlement area. Welcome to prisons in the Netherlands!

This is the “Standard” level of all inmates, where cells are open all day long, and include a satellite TV and music player.

The “Dreamy” level for inmates with distinct reports, who are about to be released, includes more advantages, like increasing visitation to two hours weekly, having a laptop and allowing an inmate to get out for any reason, such as going to an interview for a new job or choosing a new house, whose rent they can afford from the money they had saved in prison.

At first, many in Egypt would consider this “pampering” or excess idealism in a rich, leisured country, whereas the in-depth picture I witnessed over there, with the Medical Syndicate delegation that was invited by the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, confirmed to me that everything is thoroughly planned and studied in order to achieve downright practical goals.

A Dutch guard tells us that the very first thing she’d learned was the goals of a prison, which guards have to think of constantly so they don’t forget.

A prison’s goal, naturally, is “reformation and discipline,” as our famous expression says, to change an inmate into a good, productive human being by the time they are out of prison, which would decrease crime levels.

Generally, the way western minds work is very practical — they start by asking the correct questions about a problem, so studies and research could give them actual scientific answers, and then recommendations could be practically applied.


First question: What are the reasons behind the problem (the crime)?

It could be poverty or unemployment.

This is why Dutch prisons encourage all kinds of education: an inmate could study some academic science in classrooms provided with everything, from blackboards to the Internet, where teachers from outside could go in and teach. An inmate could also study some handicraft, like carpentry, and then practice what they’ve learned and make money, while the prison administration takes upon itself to market the products.

The degrees or work permits inmates receive are no different from those people get from anyplace outside, and no one would dismiss them and say, “You’re an ex-con.”

One of the original methods prisons apply is giving priority to inmates to get the prison requirements. For example, instead of purchasing furniture from outside, inmates are charged with the manufacturing process, and then the administration buys it from them. Also, instead of purchasing ready-made victuals from outside, inmates manufacture and package the items they could.

It doesn’t end here, for an inmate stays under parole after they’re released; they receive an unemployment allowance if they can’t find work, and they stay at special lodgings if they can’t find a place to live.

“Everybody in the country could find a warm, safe place to sleep, at least,” says the guard.


It could be injustice.

Presenting the details of the justice system over there needs a book, not just an article, whether we speak in general of the political, economical, legal and social structures of the system, or the prison from the inside, where the whole philosophy is based upon the fact that inmates shouldn’t feel like they’re being abused or treated unjustly, which would make them feel angry at both state and society.

Let me just mention one example concerning the purpose of our visit: medical care in prisons.

At the Den Haag Prison at The Hague, a doctor told us that if an inmate’s health condition is over the prison’s infirmary capacity (which is high already), they will be transferred within no more than seven minutes to the nearest government hospital. Doctors issue transfer orders, and they are carried out immediately, without referring to other authorities.

“Members of the royal family also go to these hospitals,” she explained laughingly as if telling as joke. “So, in one room you could find a prisoner, and in the next a prince from the royal family.”

She couldn’t possibly fathom the cultural shock she gave us!


It could be radical religious notions.

Enter Sheikh Ahmed el-Hamouly. We met with him at Rotterdam, a supermax facility where terrorist suspects are held. Sheikh Ahmed is an Egyptian who had migrated to the Netherlands sixteen years ago — chic suit, culture, courtesy and wit — and he told us that prisons include all religious choices, even the newly-founded Religion of Humanity, and for each religion there is a place of worship and men of faith available.

However, the role of men of faith who work at prisons isn’t limited to prayer only; they have to study the faith, psychology and law. Sheikh Ahmed has three master’s degrees in all three fields, and he teaches at the university.

His main role is psychological and social aid, completely confidential and independent. Inmates have the right to call upon him at any time, to discuss their notions and the reasons behind their crimes. He also helps them deliver their apology to their victims, or work as a medium to solve some family crisis.

The law dictates that all this must be confidential. A man of faith cannot reveal an inmate’s crimes, and their testimony won’t be admissible in court, and they’re liable to imprisonment for six months themselves if they reveal it to anybody. The only exception is if an inmate tells them they’re planning a murder, which they then have to report, in order to guarantee special psychological care for the inmate, and only after they tell them they’re going to report what they heard.


It could be some mental illness.

This item gets the uttermost serious attention. They don’t just use regular psychiatrists: the Custodial Institutions Agency includes a specialized academy for training prison psychiatrists, and there are hospitals and mental institutions within and without prisons, where all inmates must be checked once they’re inside.

Mental illnesses don’t just mean insanity (like in here), but include all kinds of maladies that lead to crime. For example, a psychopath is mentally sound, but they’re prone to violence and harming others, and they need treatment.


Second question: How to solve the problem? (Reformation and discipline).

The most notable thing of all is that the process of reformation and discipline includes both inmate and guard. The whole philosophy of prisons is based on the idea that they’re factories that re-form citizens in order to include them back in society. This is why a jail-break attempt isn’t considered a crime and isn’t punishable, “because our job here is to let out a normal human beings; and freedom is a normal human being’s instinct, and we don’t want to kill that in them.”

For this reason, not all prison activities and “pampering” are allowed indiscreetly, but there is a certain time for everything. You need to wash your clothes? Then you can do your laundry twice a week, for two hours each time. You want to learn carpentry? Play some sport? Paint? It’s your right to do this or that for a certain number of hours.

In the end, inmates find themselves within a strict system that works according to a punctual schedule, so that they can get used to discipline and the values of teamwork and respecting other members of society. All prison activities are designed for that purpose, including a place for inmates who like to cook together.

As if prison is an audition for society, and this is why an inmate could get an early release, and other fringe benefits, if they prove successful enough at living in this small society, which rehabilitates them to go back to the bigger society as good citizens.

As for guards, the whole prison system is designed to preserve their mental wellbeing, so they don’t turn into unhealthy individuals with all the power they have. Guards are ordinary civilians, who applied to study at a specialized academy run by the Custodial Institutions Agency.

At first sight, it was obvious that neither guard nor inmate wear uniforms. Our guide told us that scientific studies showed that it’s better for the mentality of both not to see each other wearing their own unified uniforms, so they don’t get mentally detached from each other.

It’s forbidden for guards to carry weapons inside the prison, not even plastic sticks, so that inmates don’t feel threatened, and so that the weapons don’t tempt the guards to use ferocity.

So how do they act if an inmate mutinies? All guards go to the gym regularly and receive a strict judo training, which allows a guard to overpower the mutinying inmate in an instant before tranquilizing them.

Also, the prison itself is designed to control any mutiny, where any part could be completely isolated quickly. There are double doors, where one won’t open (using a different key) until the other is locked. In addition, the whole prison is monitored by cameras, and all doors are electronically controlled. They’re cheap, simple settings, but equally effective.

There’s another amazing way they use to preserve the mental wellbeing of guards: the living area of guards is an exact replica of the living area of prisoners — furniture, colors, order are the same, which also applies to both gyms. Again, they told us that scientific research said it’s better for both guard and inmate.

Also, the guard offices are all designed the same way. We entered an office of the lowest-ranking guards, the captain of the guards’ office and the warden’s office, and we found them all the same. In spite of myself, I remembered the differences here between officers and guards, and the differences between the officers themselves, depending on rank. We’re running a very successful factory that produce injustice in both directions.


Question three: How to keep the solution working? (The system).

First, transparency…solid glass.

I, an ordinary foreign citizen of another country, toured the prison with my foreign friends, with our cell phones, and took all the pictures we wanted (only without showing any inmates).

I, an ordinary foreign citizen of another country, simply browsed the Internet for the Custodial Institutions Agency’s website, and found all kinds of information, in addition to a nice-looking pamphlet in English they gave us when we started our visit, which included all the detailed numbers of working vehicles and so on…and even the number of bread loaves that are distributed every day.

For example, I now know that the agency’s budget is €2.2 billion (about LE18 billion), an inmate’s cost per day is €261, which is increased to €398 if they’re hospitalized, and to €574 per day for underage inmates.

By the way, we can’t just take the easy road and say it’s a rich country, because these costs are very high even for them. I stayed at a very good hotel in Amsterdam for only €75 per day. As I said before, it’s all about achieving the prison’s actual goals.


Second, management via distributing authorities…no demigods.

In general, modern management systems don’t leave all the power in one person’s hands, be they big or small-ranking officials, and in general, there are individual, effective supervision mechanisms used.

First of all, everything concerning prisons, from all guards and employees to the vehicles they use, is under the authority of the Custodial Institutions Agency, which is a direct subsidiary to the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice.

A police officer’s part ends the second they deliver an inmate to prison, and they must leave their sidearm in their vehicles, because everyone’s strictly forbidden to get inside the prison while carrying a weapon!

After the complete separation of different authorities come the different levels of supervision. For example, the capability of health care received by inmates is under the auspices of three different entities; the Health Supervision Administration at the Ministry of Health, and the Disciplinary Medical Court that manages any mistakes made by doctors. If an inmate has some complaint, they have the right to present it to a third entity, the Council for Criminal Justice Administration and Protecting the Minors, which is formed by representatives of civil society, and includes former judges, psychology and sociology professors and representatives of human rights societies.

By the way, if for some violation an inmate is sent to solitary (which is better than our best cells, and has a TV!), they have the right to present a complaint to the same council, and representatives must come at once and listen to the complaint.


Third, the results…will we succeed?

Any organization in the world is prone to lassitude and decline if there is no evaluation or accountability.

The most important aspect is the level of going back to crime. “Before, as an inmate left the prison we would tell them, ‘Bye-bye, don’t come back here ever again.’ But then we realized we were wrong. Now, we follow up with them to help them get back to society, and to realize what mistakes we made should they commit another crime. Before, the level of going back to crime was %70, and now it’s less than %30, and we hope it becomes even less!”

The numbers of inmates are also becoming less and less. In 2013 the number was 13 thousand, while the agency’s employees were 15960, which means that the jailers were more than the jailed, so they dismissed the guards. (It’s worth noting here that Dutch inmates are only %56.3, while the rest consists of other nationalities, Turks, Moroccans, Egyptians).

In March 2014 a spokesman of the Ministry of Security and Justice announced that the number of inmates went down to 9710, and the guards to 9914.

Types of crime itself also went down drastically: %54 of inmates spend less than a month in prison, %39 less than a year, only %7 spend more than a year, and only 53 individuals of those are sentenced to life in prison (which is capital punishment, since there is no death sentence, but the convicts do spend the rest of their lives in prison, not only 25 years like here).

This is why some Dutch prisons were closed, like the notorious Het Arresthuis Prison that was shut down after 150 years of service, and transformed into a luxury hotel. The Dutch government is currently making a rent agreement with Norway to house the excess Norwegian inmates in the empty Dutch prison cells, since Norway is having a crisis with convicts who have to wait for three years sometimes to spend their prison period. Yes, the convicts have to wait, but no one suggested just piling them over each other, and no one fears that they might escape.

This method has proven utter success, which is why they simply apply and develop it constantly. It’s not just about the humanitarian and ethical aspects, but a practical, working method that proved successful.

I imagine that if hitting an inmate on the back of their neck had proven successful, they would’ve applied that method over there immediately, and researched how many hits are enough, the necessary training for the guards and the mental condition of both inmate and guard!


This is what happens in the world, but things are different with the Mother of the World!

If I, an Egyptian citizen, talked about the reasons behind crime and terrorism, and the conditions of prisons in Egypt from a mere humanitarian, social and patriotic point of view, I’d find a thousand outbidders who would come out and accuse me of justifying terrorism, and I’d find a thousand scarecrows yelling at me that I’m a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Egypt, “reformation and discipline” only exist on that old wooden sign, and the types of mistreatment and abuse are more than one could count, from torture, to sleeping on a rag on the floor, to bad food, to allowing visitations and athletics according to the mood of whoever is in charge, to overstuffing the cells with piles and piles of people so much that inmates in some cells take turns to sleep, because there’s no room for all of them to sleep at the same time.

The Ministry of the Interior controls all facilities, and there’s no individual authority to supervise. I’m not talking about the civil society organizations that care about justice, of course, but the limited height of our ambitions is the National Council for Human Rights, which was appointed by the president, whose members have to wait for days, and sometimes weeks, for the ministry to allow them inside a prison. As for the Medical Syndicate, the only elected entity for health care in Egypt, there are no answers for its urgent requests — the Ministry of the Interior even ignored the syndicate’s invitation when it held a special conference for health care in prisons.

And we can all see the result. Everybody knows that prisons are the biggest schools in the country for graduating criminals and perverts, in addition to everyone with radical and violent notions.

In the Netherlands, Sheikh Ahmed el-Hamouly told us sadly that a while ago they had received a delegation from the Egyptian Ministry of Justice and Ministry of the Interior. The magnanimous Egyptian welcomed them and offered to translate the adopted program the Dutch use to treat addict inmates. He even went on to offer volunteering to train prison supervisors in Egypt to learn how to combat addiction without charge, since this is one of the three master’s degrees he has.

He was surprised by the sharp, mocking refusal: “Thanks, Sheikh Ahmed, but no thanks. Things here are very different from there!”

Egyptian officials deal with any comparison to the modern world as a joke, as if justice is suitable for some nations but not the others.

I visited the Torture Museum in Amsterdam, where they keep some unbelievably terrible devices used by the Inquisition for torture until death to any violator. They built that horror museum so they can always remember where they were and what path they followed until they arrived to this point.

It’s not true that these or those people were born with certain negative or positive traits, nor there is a country that was always advanced or underdeveloped. The fault is with the system.

(*) While writing this article, I learned of the passing of Dr. Farid Ismail with a hepatic coma, which reminded me of the death of young Hassan Sha’ban with a diabetic coma in February 2013, while he was being held at the Burj al-Arab Prison in Alexandria, after he was arrested in a demonstration against the Muslim Brotherhood. Death in prison doesn’t recognize political trends.

(**) The pictures included with the article are published on the Custodial Institutions Agency’s official website. I didn’t publish the pictures I took since I was visiting as a member of a medical delegation, and I had no permission to publish them in media outlets.