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Social Science Matters: How useful is deprivation of liberty?

A new bill is currently under debate in the Netherlands, advocating raising the prison sentence for manslaughter from 15 to 25 years. ‘This very serious crime (...) evokes feelings of disgust and insecurity in society’, Dutch Minister for Justice and Security Grapperhaus comments on the sentence that has not changed since 1886. There is considerable discussion about how useful imprisonment is. What effect does it have if someone is imprisoned for criminal behaviour? Is imprisonment effective? Should wrongdoers receive help? And what about deprivation of liberty at national borders, as with Trump’s wall? Our social and behavioural scientists share their points of view.

Anna van Duijvenvoorde

Brain behind bars

Anna van Duijvenvoorde and Lotte van Dillen - Psychology

At any one time, there are approximately 33,000 people in prison in the Netherlands, many of whom are serving short sentences. Figures published by Statistics Netherlands in 2017 show that as many as 74% of prisoners in the Netherlands are serving a sentence of less than 3 months. These short prison sentences have become increasingly common in recent years and have been fiercely criticized because they disrupt the individual's daily life (causing them to lose their job, home, etc.), with scant regard - or time - for reintegration into society. But in addition to these practical consequences, there is another important question: what does doing time - even a short time - do to someone's brain?

Lotte van Dillen

In everyday life, our brain is constantly responding to and processing various stimuli, and our mental capacities are constantly being deployed to assess situations and make choices. We know that our brains go on developing into early adulthood, probably even well into our twenties. This development is driven by biological factors (including puberty and the associated hormonal changes), but also by our experiences. The guiding principle is 'use it or lose it'. And though this principle is particularly applicable to the developing brain, the adult brain is also capable of change and sensitive to the amount of input it receives.  

If someone leads a passive existence, and fewer demands are made on their brain, their brain function will deteriorate. With this in mind, researchers at VU Amsterdam studied how doing time impacted prisoners' executive functions. These are important skills for regulating and monitoring behaviour, such as impulse control (important for long-term decision-making), working memory (the ability to bear something in mind), flexible task switching, and planned behaviour. The researchers found that many prisoners spent a large part of the day lying on their bed or sleeping, sometimes for as long as 6.5 hours per day. Tests showed that their executive functions deteriorated during a period of inactivity, even within three months. The implication of these findings is that prisoners emerged from these short periods of imprisonment with reduced behavioural regulation skills. This information may be important for understanding and reducing repeat offending.

The relationship between the brain, criminal justice, and juvenile justice will be explored further at the next open day of the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, LIBC in 2021. See LIBC Brein & Recht (in Dutch) for further information and registration.

Liza Cornet

Prison and personal development

Liza Cornet - Education and Child Studies

Imprisonment is a way to protect society from crime. However, to my mind, a punishment focused entirely on depriving somebody of their liberty can never lead to improved behaviour. Neuroscientific research has shown that offenders often experience problems in relation to ‘executive functions’. These are complex skills such as emotion regulation and impulse control, which are mainly controlled by the front part of the brain. 

Various factors play a role in reduced functioning of the frontal brain: these include genetic factors, but also situational factors such as upbringing, trauma, and substance abuse. These factors can influence the brain to such an extent that the chance to develop delinquent behaviour increases. This does not mean that reduced brain functioning is an excuse for delinquent behaviour. But it does help us understand how delinquent behaviour develops and what is required to tackle it. 

Research shows that simply locking up individuals who show delinquent behaviour cannot lead to an improvement in the executive functions that are so crucial for socially adaptive behaviour. To function properly, our brains need stimuli: challenges, exercises, practice. A punishment that is exclusively focused on deprivation of liberty will to a certain extent cause the brain to 'shut down'.

Naturally, in Dutch prisons, various activities, including intensive behavioural interventions, are provided, but the figures show that over half of former prisoners re-offend within three years of being released. I believe that deprivation of liberty has a negative effect on brain functioning. Reintegration activities may stimulate brain functioning to some degree, but the brain is unlikely to come out of it better than before imprisonment. Yet the expectation is that after a prison sentence the individual's behaviour will improve. 

Are there other ways? There are examples of deprivation of liberty being combined with an enhanced environment for prisoners. Take the 'Detentiehuizen' in Belgium, for instance, or the Norwegian prison island Bastøy. For some time, the Netherlands has been experimenting with ‘small-scale facilities’ whose purpose is to give juvenile delinquents the opportunity to continue their schooling or employment in their own environment throughout their period in detention. Although there are as yet no hard data for the effectiveness of these sorts of initiatives, my expectation is that these forms of custodial sentences will be more effective from a neuropsychological point of view. It is certainly promising that in addition to a custodial sentence there is also attention for offenders' personal development in preparation for their new existence in society.

Matthew Longo


Matthew Longo - Political Science

As a scholar who works on borders, I often field questions on the link between borders and prisons. The association is natural, given the rise of walls and fences worldwide, especially in the United States – where I am from, and where I conducted the majority of the research for my book, The Politics of Borders. In many ways, the steel bollards, camera fixtures and light towers that dominate the American borderlands comprise a border-industrial-complex not so different from the more familiar prison-industrial-complex.

Horrifying images of child separation, casually referred to as “kids in cages,” flood the news wires, alongside stories of ICE officers cracking down on immigrant communities with the fervor of bounty hunters. It is no stretch to suggest that the US is turning its borderlands into giant open air prisons that extend far inland of the border, especially for targeted migrants.

How did it come to this? While it is easy to point fingers at the angry, revanchist rhetoric of current US President Trump, in fact the prison-like quality of borders is of far older vintage – older even than the state system itself. In ancient Rome, the frontier was filled with disloyal subjects, including nomads, thieves and tax-dodgers, so the capital cultivated their allegiance through policies of assimilation and cooptation. Indeed, this was a principle function of early walling systems, like Hadrian’s Wall, which were designed “to divide the barbarians beyond from the barbarians within, who were in the process of becoming Roman”. The Great Wall of China, too, was designed in large part to command fealty (and tax revenue) from far-flung subjects. In both cases, the state was as interested in who they fenced in, as who they fenced out.

The modern border is a relatively new phenomenon, as it was only in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of centralized forms of administration that states could even control their entire territories. But the story is nearly the same. As their capacity expanded, states began to view borders as tools for managing and controlling local populations. This projection of central power was in no way unique to the west. For example, James C. Scott details how state attempts to reign in the periphery in upland Asia involved “establishing armed border posts, moving loyal populations to the frontier and relocating or driving away ‘disloyal’ populations”. Here too, policies were aimed as much at establishing state dominion over their own subjects as to keep outsiders at bay.

As with anything in politics, the language we used to describe institutions is greatly reflective of the vantage where we sit. For those who feel they don’t belong in a polity, or are distrusted by the central state, borders have always been like prisons. Seen in this light, the present abuses of the border-industrial-complex appear more as a historical continuation than a structural injustice altogether new. This shouldn’t diminish the outrage we feel when we see images of children shivering in detention centers; rather, it should help focus it. It is one thing to critique Trump for being cruel and inhumane. We should of course do this. But the border will not cease to be a prison when we stop building walls. For this we have to radically rethink the role of borders in the first place. 

Social Science Matters – a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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