Dutch prisoners go hi-tech
The Dutch state is opening a high-tech prison this week where inmates wear electronic wristbands that track their every movement, and guards use emotion recognition software to monitor cells for signs of trouble.Updated: Jan 18, 2006 20:52 IST
The Dutch state is opening a high-tech prison this week where inmates wear electronic wristbands that track their every movement, and guards use emotion recognition software to monitor cells for signs of trouble.
It may sound like science fiction, but authorities are convinced the jail quickly dubbed "the Big Brother Prison" by the local press is the future of correctional facilities: cheap and efficient, while not coddling criminals or violating their fundamental rights. Detainees at the prison due to open Thursday in the central city of Lelystad will be kept in six-man dormitory cells. There they will do their own cooking, washing, and organize their own daytime schedules via a touch-screen monitor at the foot of their beds. "We hesitate to compare it to a youth hostel because the biggest part of being punished is that you've lost your freedom," Justice Ministry spokesman Hans Janssens said.
Prisoners have limited choices for their activities _ electives include drug education classes and exercise _ and they are locked in their cells at night.
Unlike the "Big Brother" television program, camera surveillance in the prison is only in public spaces, not on bunk beds or in bathrooms.
Cells are equipped with microphones that relay information to the prison's control center for analysis by emotion recognition software. The software uses a combination of sound volume and rhythm to alert guards when a violent confrontation between inmates may be taking place.
"If prisoners are cheering because they're watching a soccer game and someone has scored, it wouldn't pick that up," Janssens said of the software. "But if they're shouting like 'hey, hey, there's a fight', it would detect that."
Janssens said the primary reason for building the high-tech prison was saving money: the estimated cost per prisoner per night is euro105 (US$125), compared to euro140 (US$170) for other Dutch prisons. Because monitoring is easier, the Lelystad facility requires far fewer guards than other prisons, only six for 150 prisoners. A normal prison would need 15.
Having multiple prisoners in one cell is also new in the Netherlands, Janssens said, adding that studies have found prisoners usually behave better when housed in small groups than in large groups, pairs or alone.
With good behavior, inmates can build up credits which they can use to watch more television or get more channels on the monitors installed at the foot of their bed. They can also earn more phone calls _ to preapproved numbers _ longer visiting hours, or even "buy" a switch to another room if they don't get along with their cellmates.
Janssens emphasized that hardened criminals, or people with a history of violence or mental illness wouldn't be eligible for the prison. It was tested on volunteer college students. "If you're interested in trying it out, don't commit a felony," Janssens said. "I suggest you try not paying a few parking tickets."
Pieter Vleeming, spokesman for the European Organization for the Protection of Prisoner's Rights, said he believed the new prison was unique. He criticized some aspects but generally gave it positive marks.
"From a punishment point of view there are no objections. You could call it progress," he said, adding that he didn't see the surveillance as a violation of prisoners' rights. But he said that prisoners should be given more opportunity for self-improvement and job training.
"That will keep people from returning to crime when they're released, and in the long run that's what we all want," Vleeming said.
He added that keeping low-risk offenders at home under similar electronic surveillance would be more effective at helping them re-socialize, and would cost far less than the new prison. "We estimate you could save up to 80 percent," he said. Results of a Dutch home-jailing test program are expected within several months, he said.
First Published: Jan 18, 2006 20:52 IST