Universiteit Leiden

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Fotograaf: Ingrid Taylar

Life after a life sentence

The state should prepare 'lifers' better for returning to society, for example by giving them some control over their own lives. This is the finding of Marieke Liem in her book 'After Life Imprisonment', published on 19 August.

Liem investigated whether ex-detainees are able to get their lives back on track once they are released. She studied people in the US who had been condemned to life imprisonment for murder. Some of the 130,000 American 'lifers' are eligible for parole.

‘Extremely difficult’

‘Their release from prison proves to be extremely difficult for detainees,' Liem says. 'Many former prisoners feel they are no longer part of daily life. And you can't really disagree with them: they have often missed out on important life transitions. They have no stability in their career or in their relationships, not even with their children. When you're released from prison, you're on your own.’

Loss of control

American former detainees also often feel they have lost control over everyday things. In prison the guards determine almost everything: when the lights go out, when you eat and when you work, etc. Back in the outside world it proves difficult or even impossible for many ex-prisoners to take back control. Liem: ‘They no longer know how to do such things as organising a driving licence, or how to apply for a job. They've forgotton how normal life works.'

Heavier sentences

According to Liem, her research has major consequences for how we regard long prison sentences, and not only in the US. In the Netherlands, too, judges are handing out increasingly long sentences. Without any formof guidance, many of these prisoners fall into a black hole once they are released. 'Research shows that a prison sentence of more than 7 years leads to repeat crimes,' Liem comments. 'That means you are achieving the exact opposite of what you intended.'


The European Court of Human Justice (EHRM) has warned the Dutch state on several occasions about lifelong prison sentences. According to the EHRM, such sentences represent a form of hopeless suffering. Unlike criminals in other European countries, prisoners in the Netherlands have no chance of having their sentences reviewed. Liem: ‘It may well be that the Dutch state will revise the policy on lifelong sentences and then these prisoners will have the possibility of being released at some time in the future.'


The state would do better to prepare long-term prisoners for their return to society, according to Liem. 'You can make sure that prisoners retain some of their feeling of control while they are in prison. You can let them take courses, or do their own cooking, for example. That may seem negligible, but it does make a difference. When you are free, you decide for yourself what you want to eat, what you buy and how you prepare it. These kinds of minor adjustments will over time reduce the step to living in the outside world to manageable proportions.' 

Come and listen

Marieke Liem will be giving one of the The Hague Talks in the Paard van Troje in The Hague, between 18.30 and 21:00 hrs as part of the Just Peace festival. The talk is free, but you do need to register. The Just Peace festival is taking place from 21 to 25 September in The Hague. The city is staging a wide range of activities to mark the International UN Day of Peace. Many of the activities are free.

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