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Prison sentences

It has been found that the better a prisoner is treated, the more effective the sentence. Leiden criminologists therefore research how detention can be improved in such areas as prison life and contact between prisoners and their children.

Prison life

There is growing attention in the prison world for the living environment in prisons. The idea is that how people are imprisoned affects their re-entry into society. This concerns aspects such as contact with other prisoners and staff, safety, autonomy and the possibility to keep in touch with the outside world. In the academic field we still know little about life in Dutch prisons and their effect during and after detention.

Hanneke Palmen, Anouk Bosma and Esther van Ginneken are trying to find out more about prison life in the Life in Custody project (LIC), a national survey of prisons that aims to improve our understanding of prison life, as experienced by prisoners themselves. The LIC project should answer a number of questions, the first of which is whether there is a relationship between the working conditions of prison staff and the living conditions of prisoners. ‘One could imagine that, if staff have a high workload, for instance, this could have consequences for how prisoners are imprisoned and thus on their life outside prison too,’ says Palmen.

The second question is whether there is a relationship between prison life and prisoner behaviour. For instance, do prisoners become more aggressive if their living conditions are bad? The aim of the LIC project is to link the results of the research to the recidivism rate. Palmen: ‘Prison life differs per regime and possibly also per prison. We will be able to see if certain aspects of prison life correlate positively or negatively with reoffending statistics, or if prison life, although essential to the humane imprisonment of offenders, is not as related to favourable long-term effects after detention as is sometimes thought.’

Some 6,000 men and women from all Dutch prisons completed the questionnaire. Palmen, Bosma and Van Ginneken are still analysing this wealth of data. They will publish their findings and recommendations in a series of reports in the coming years.

Does prison life affect prisoner behaviour?

Children, detention and parenthood

Ninety-five per cent of prisoners in the Netherlands are male, and one in three men in detention has children. It is not only the fathers, but their families too that experience unintended consequences of prison sentences. Research shows that the father’s absence can lead to a difficult upbringing, poverty and behavioural problems in children. At the same time, the family is a protecting factor. Research among incarcerated mothers shows that those who can maintain a relationship with their family find their prison sentence less stressful and run less risk of getting into trouble again after their release.

Researcher Joni Reef looks at the consequences of detention, for both detained fathers and their children. ‘Children of prisoners often have an irregular family life before the father is arrested,’ says Reef. ‘These children are more likely to have physical, mental and emotional problems, which means they also have difficulties at school or come into contact with the police. If we look at the fathers, we know that prisoners often have stepchildren and children by different mothers. Teenage parenting is also more prevalent among imprisoned fathers.’

The negative effects of a custodial sentence differ for prisoners with children from prisoners without. Although relatively much attention is paid to the children of incarcerated mothers, little is paid to the children of incarcerated fathers. But the impact for vulnerable children and incarcerated fathers alike is great. ‘As soon as the father is in detention this can be a problem for boys in particular because they lose a role model and parent. The risk of boys taking up crime thus becomes greater. Detention also has an impact on the family because the father is often the main breadwinner, and his income disappears. A prison sentence can thus result in many new extra risk factors: the mother has to go to work, for example, and has less time for the children. They are given less food, their clothes are washed less often and there is less attention for negative emotions. The family is under pressure. Witnessing your father’s arrest can also leave a scar.’

Fathers in prison consider contact with their children to be more important than we might think. Being a father is a source of worry too, it has been found. Reef: ‘We know that 85% of fathers want contact with their children. The “male culture” in prisons, however, means that men do not talk much about their children. That’s not tough, and it also makes them vulnerable to threats against the family from fellow prisoners. As far as that is concerned, it really is time for a family-focused approach in Dutch prisons.’

Reef calls for the ‘emancipation of defendants with children’. She has advised various parties in the criminal justice chain such as the Custodial Institutions Agency, Exodus and the National Police Service, and works with them to generate more attention for fatherhood and devise ways to limit the effects on the children of prisoners. ‘Pauline Schuyt and I are involved in a pilot in the prison in Leeuwarden, where children are brought to prison to spend time with their fathers, and fathers are given the opportunity to keep in touch with and raise their children. They do homework together, for instance. The fathers often learn from this too. We expect it to benefit all members of the family as well as to reduce the recidivism rate for society.’

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