The White Building

How Dutch design students are helping prisoners transition back into life on the outside

by Mona Lalwani

Unlike their American counterparts, Dutch prisons have room to spare. This summer, a prison in Veenhuizen, a quaint and quiet village in northern Holland, will occupy some of its vacancies with 242 Norwegian prisoners, hosting the inmates for three years while their own facility is renovated. This isn’t the first time Holland has opened its prison gates for foreign prisoners. The country signed a similar rent agreement with Belgium in 2009.

Veenhuizen is the detention hub of the Netherlands. The Penitentiary Institution of the village includes two prisons — Esserheem and Norgerhaven. The vacant cells in their facilities are representative of the declining incarceration rates across the country. But the penitentiary system is not without its problems. While the system exemplifies rehabilitation and social integration, recidivism rates continue to soar.

Fortunately, because the prisons have such a prominent local presence, the culture around them has given rise to progressive programs designed to keep recidivism in check. Even students from the renowned Design Academy Eindhoven, located nearby, have become involved in prison-related work. About a year ago, two design students, Eléonore Delisse and Laura Ferriere, set up a social project called The White Building, a rehabilitation home that facilitates re-entry for prisoners who are close to the end of their sentence in Veenhuizen.

Delisse and Ferriere devised the project as a combination of creative stimulation and work experience that they believe could prove to be a beneficial rehabilitative exercise. Their project aims to reconnect inmates with the outside world through design residencies that encourage interactions between participating inmates and creative professionals.

While going from a regimented prison to a life of freedom and possible productivity seems rewarding, the stigmatization, instability, and lack of work choices obstructs normalization of offenders. But The White Building offers individualized re-entry. It provided a safe space for self-discovery, the result of which, they hope, will more secure footing in the outside world and less chance of a relapse.

After a month of exhaustive presentations for permissions and access, and extensive reviewing of prisoner testimonies, the first practical task was to choose a space that would put the participating inmates at ease. The designer duo went with a three-story white home, an anti-squatters building made available and affordable by the Dutch government. The Design Academy rented the place in the village and allowed access to the students for their pilot program.

In contrast to the constraints of the prison, the exterior of the building, with large french windows on one side and bay windows on the other, has no barriers to restrict entry or exit. Inside, Delisse and Ferriere transformed the ground floor into a makeshift design school—they use a spacious “process room” for group activities and exhibits, an “interaction room” for brainstorming, and they turned the living room, which was connected to a garden, into a casual space for coffee and lunch breaks. They set up their living quarters upstairs and stayed through the span of one year and seven residencies. And also converted an attic on the top floor into a mini-library for recreational reading.

Both creators carefully auditioned the creative partners who would lead the residencies. “We cast them according to their work, they had to be able to think and design creatively, but also for their human values,” said Ferriere. “They had to understand the trust and equality involved.” The coterie of professionals who made the cut included a product designer, a performance artist, a chef, a sound artist and more.

In selecting participants, they zeroed in on Esserheem (an all-male prison) and decided to work with 48 repeat offenders housed in the facility. “Most of them haven’t worked a day in their lives,” said Ferriere. “They’re not the most dangerous but they’re the toughest in their minds.” The project was designed for equal access, irrespective of criminal backgrounds. Still, at least half of the repeat offenders couldn’t volunteer to participate in the creative experience because of their addictions or lack of permissions to go outside.

The program steered clear of prison-style hierarchy. During their time at The White Building, the only indication of the participants’ inmate status was the presence of a guard who escorted them back and forth from the prison to their temporary white home on a daily basis. In a close-knit set up, over time, the inmates learned to interact freely with the small team of project creators and residency leaders. Together, they moulded or built products with materials like porcelain, metal and wood, or worked with moving images for a movie and played with dimensions of sound.

While prison life is marked by carefully monitored routines and inmates are accustomed to taking orders, life in The White Building was about flexibility and self-reliance. The inmates had the option to volunteer for one or more residencies. Each residency spanned four weeks and was split into design phases. The first phase was research, a quest for personal interests and ideas that would inform the remainder of the residency. It was a seemingly simple but insightful round of looking at random pictures — hundreds of pictures— and working through the instinct of being drawn to one over the other. It helped instill confidence in their ability to make a choice.

The next step involved conceptualization: Making collages from the selected pictures or learning to create small models of bigger ideas. At this point, the residency leads introduced a technique, moulding or welding for instance. Concepts were then translated into structures or services, and an implementation phase led to the production of a prototype. The design phases culminated in a final exhibit open to visitors from the village and families of the inmates. At the end, a week was spent in conclusion, to meditate on the learnings and formulate future goals for life after prison.

The program, as intended, went beyond the existing ways of social integration which, in Holland, already include skills-based education in prison and government support on release. It wasn’t designed to provide an inmate-analysis or psychological support as an extension of the prison. Instead it focused on the needs of the inmates and gave them a glimpse into the many possibilities of every day communal life after prison.

“The prisoners wanted to make sure we weren’t psychiatrists,” said Delisse. “They talk so much with them, they’re tired of it. They were happy to talk human-to-human, like in normal life.”

A non-judgmental environment helped achieve the essential goal of empowerment. It provided a breather from the constant vigilance of a prison where every move is reported and every word recorded in the “trajectory” of an inmate. “What happens in The White Building, stays in The White Building,” she said. “This brought us closer and helped establish trust.”

Bili Regev, a multidisciplinary designer originally from Tel Aviv, moved in to the building to run a residency late last year. She first heard about the project from Delisse and Ferriere, her classmates at Eindhoven. “I thought it was insane,” she said. “I know the Dutch system, I know the municipalities and how hard it is to get approvals. It’s hard for me to understand how they managed to find this path in the system.”

But she saw the potential and designed one of the more abstract themes for a residency called Unique Random. While some residencies had a goal, conceptualizing a food and layout for a new restaurant or building furniture, Regev instigated introspection through an open-ended residency — the participants were free to create anything with a technique of their choice. “Design students are very aware of themselves,” she said. “You constantly reflect on yourself and ask how can you give to others. You learn about yourself and what you’re good at and that works for this system too.”

Inside the Building, Regev was quick to readjust her expectations. During the first “mood round,” a morning and evening ritual where inmates would share three things about their day or their state of mind, she saw the inmates opening up about their lives. “They were so gentle,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised because they were prisoners, but because they were macho men and they could really talk about their feelings.”

Through the year, Delisse and Ferriere stayed sensitive to the moods of the inmates. They handled outbursts with care. During one of the sessions, when an inmate was asked to put out his cigarette to respect the no-smoking rule inside the house, he screamed at the room. “It wasn’t to do with the program. Those guys are under pressure,” said Ferriere. “We can’t imagine their daily lives. Sometimes a phone call or news can make them anxious or happy. It was important to know how they are so we could adapt through the day.”

Their patience was rewarded with transformations. “One inmate, who stayed with us for a long time, had trouble dealing with groups,” said Ferriere. “He had trouble facing someone, to look in the eyes of someone. But he blossomed in a few months. He took on a lot of responsibility, practiced time and group management. His family was able to visit after every residency…For this person, this project had most value.”

Design students from Eindhoven flock to Veenhuizen. But the village is favored by inmates, too. “Not in the least because of the views from prison — they can see nature, wide open spaces, the sky,” says Kiki Hehemann, head of collections and education at the National Prison Museum in Veenhuizen. “But also because personnel seem more laid back…Probably because prison life has been part of the culture of this community for so long.”

For close to two centuries, the village has been marked by a complex history of poverty and punishment. In 1823, the Benevolent Society created the village as one of its seven colonies to serve as a reform housing society for vagrants. The excessively poor were coerced to work on rough, desolate land in the colony. Neatly laid out, landscaped farms are indicative of that agrarian history.

In the decades that followed, the private society lost its money and ability to sustain disciplinary operations in the village. Veenhuizen was eventually handed over to the Ministry of Justice. It transformed into a prison village and remained closed to the rest of the world until 1984: The only people who entered the village were inmates, personnel, or prison visitors.

Now three decades later, the dread and gloom expected of a village built to imprison people is largely missing from any conversation around Veenhuizen. With 130 buildings (including Esserheem prison) classified as monuments in the village, the site, along with the remaining six colonies, are collectively nominated for UNESCO’s world heritage status. Remnants of the detention history are cleverly disguised as tourism spots: the National Prison Museum has attracted over 100,000 tourists every year since 2009.

The village showcases its problematic history with pride. The Dutch penitentiary system, at large, demonstrates the advantages of a progressive approach that offers a mix of detention, punishment and rehabilitation. It’s as much a productive enterprise as it is a punitive program. A national penitentiary program, In-Made, provides packing and manufacturing services from in-house prison factories. About 8000 prisoners are employed: They make furniture, bikes or paintings based on their skillset. Last year alone, the program made 4.4 million euro from the prison production company. “Instead of losing money on the prison system, we make money,” says Jaap Oosterveer, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice Netherlands.

“Not every prisoner wants to work,” Oosterveer explains . “And that’s fine. But there are people who do, so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to invest in people who are motivated. Everybody gets the same chances, but there’s more chances if you want to do something.”

While The White Building’s operations seem in line with the productive nature of the prison system in Holland, the project was more than a manufacturing unit in a prison. It differed both in process and intent. In-house prison units are like factories: The inmates have a designated work station and a predetermined product to create. The system is designed to keep the inmates occupied and the system profitable. The White Building, on the other hand, was not about passing time; instead, it utilized prison time to reveal latent potential that could translate into passion for work in the outside world. Through the design process, inmates discovered analytical skills and created tangible products that could be replicated in the future.

When Delisse and Ferriere set out, they were told that they’d learn how not to get attached. “But we never wanted to learn that,” says Delisse. “They’re human, you know. Prisoner is just a label you put on someone. We saw them differently — as people that they actually are, not just as prisoners.” They continue to visit the inmates to check in on them and ask about their families.

Late last year, the creators won a social design award during Dutch Design Week. The next iteration of The White Building is scheduled to start next month in Eindhoven, this time in conjunction with a halfway home with a different target population further along the way toward social reintegration.

Projects like The White Building don’t shield the inmates from the stigmatization that awaits them on the other side of prison life. “Once you’ve been to jail, it will always be a part of your future or your discussion,” says Ferriere. But the intersection of design and labor gives them an opportunity to rebuild trust — in themselves and others.

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