Some European Prisons Are Shrinking and Closing—What Can America Learn?

Prisons that could actually reform and rehabilitate criminals are a reality.

A prison in Tilburg, the Netherlands, that was paid 30 million euros in 2010 to admit 500 Belgian inmates—and could because it had plenty of room to spare. (Photo: Michael Kooren/Reuters) 

Nov 14, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Peter Zachariadis is a regular contributor to TakePart. A native Floridian, he has written for the Miami Herald and Associated Press in New Orleans.

Imagine prisons where inmates return to their cells at night after spending time with family, where solitary confinement is seldom used, and freedom of movement within the building is common.

Prison numbers in Germany and the Netherlands—where these practices are the norm—have declined since 2001, according to statistics compiled by the International Centre for Prison Studies. The number of inmates in German prisons reached an all-time high of 80,333 in 2001 but fell by 20 percent to 64,379 in 2012. The prison population in the Netherlands spiked in 2004 with 20,075 inmates; that number fell by about 36 percent to 13,749 in 2012.

In Sweden, officials have closed four prisons this year after a 6 percent drop in prison populations from 2011 to 2012.

While the European prison system is shrinking, the American system is overcrowded, expensive, and growing. The United States has the highest prison population in the world, with more than 2.2 million inmates. That number rose from 1.9 million in 2000.

Treating prisoners more humanely and using probation or a fine instead of a mandatory short prison sentence may be the solution to cutting down on inmate populations and returning prisoners to productive lives in society, according to experts who have studied the European prison system. More than 90 percent of Dutch sentences and 75 percent of German sentences are 12 months or less. The average U.S. state prison sentence is about three years.

Anthony Papa, 53, served 12 years for possession and distribution of 4.5 ounces of cocaine after he was arrested in a drug sting. Papa, who owned an auto-repair business and was married, had never been in trouble with police before but was sentenced to 15 years–to–life under New York’s strict mandatory minimum drug law.

“I was a first-time offender and got sent to prison with murderers and rapists,” said Papa, now a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance. Gov. George Pataki granted him clemency in 1996. Since his release, he has worked to reform drug laws so that they can begin to parallel European standards. Not to say all European prisons are worth emulating.

The reduction in Sweden’s inmate population is due in part to more lenient sentences for drug offenses following a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court in 2011. Prisoner numbers have declined by 1 percent a year steadily since 2004, authorities say. The shift also includes probation for theft and some violent crime instead of a short prison sentence.

Even though there has been a small decline, the U.S. prison system has reached a level of overcrowding that has put a strain on state budgets and called for the building of more facilities. Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a California state court’s ruling that authorized the release of 33,000 inmates over a two-year period.

So why have prison numbers fallen drastically in some countries around Western Europe? Though numbers are high in the U.S., the inmate population has shrunk a bit over the last few years, with numbers falling 1.5 percent in 2011 and 1.7 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

The European-American Prison Project tried to find out the answer last February, visiting prisons in Germany and the Netherlands to learn from European counterparts. The group included judges, corrections officials, prosecutors, and others from Georgia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania.

The report on the visit, created by the California-based Prison Law Office and Vera Institute for Justice, found that improvements needed to be made in certain areas if the U.S. was to reduce prison populations: namely, using community outreach programs to help higher-risk individuals, which is not routine in the U.S.; assessing fines or community service for less serious offenses instead of incarceration; changing the disciplinary structure in prison to less severe punishments by using solitary confinement sparingly; treating young offenders as a special population; and normalizing conditions in prison to ensure a smooth return to society.

Papa looks at the European model and remembers his own experience.

“The American penitentiary system is based on retribution as opposed to the European style, which is rehabilitative,” Papa said. “It destroys human beings. They treat you like animals.”

Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Institute hopes the innovations in German and Dutch prisons will help the U.S. to change its corrections model.

“It takes creativity off the table,” Wagner said. “You can invent something or copy smart ideas. The U.S. government is on the same planet as Europe. There is nothing stopping America from trying things that have been successful in Europe.”