CEP conducted an interview with the ex-executive director of EuroPris Kirsten Hawlitschek and the newly appointed executive director Gustav Tallving. Read their full interviews below:
In conversation with Kirsten Hawlitschek
What was the best part about working for EuroPris?
Let me start by saying that it is a great pleasure to give this interview for CEP, as our organisations have worked so closely together in such a friendly and supportive relationship from the very start of EuroPris. To also start with, it might be a good idea to mention the full name of EuroPris, which is the European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services, just to have a proper introduction to your readers from the probation sector that are not yet familiar with EuroPris.
The best, the least, the greatest…these are always tricky questions. Especially when you look back over such a long time. The first time that I got in contact with the idea of a ‘EuroPris’ was 10 years ago and then 8.5 years ago I started in the position of Executive Director. That is a very long time span with many good memories, which of course makes it hard to select the best part. But since I have to select something, let me go back to the beginning of the organisation. While CEP is already at a respectable age, EuroPris is still a young organisation. When I first got in contact with the idea of starting a EuroPris, it was just to explore possibilities for funding support for the organisation. A number of Director Generals had taken the initiative to start a network organisation for European prison services. Surprisingly, nothing like this existed yet. From the funding research, it became clear, that many more practical steps needed to be taken in order to actually establish the organisation and in order to be able to apply for financial support from the EU. This financial support from the EU was and still is essential for being able to run the organisation in a professional way. And this is how it started for me – providing support for the first funding application and for all the formalities to establish and register the organisation. 2012 was the first year that EuroPris went officially into operations and at the end of that year I was asked to manage the organisation from January 2013 on.
So, if you ask me what the best part was about working with EuroPris, then I must say, it was the fact that I was there from the very start. We started with an idea, with enthusiasm and with the support of 18 prison services that became a member in this first year. How often in life does one get a chance to build something from scratch? It was of course a great start to have so many countries that supported the founding of EuroPris, but of course there were also high expectations. And there were even more countries that were not yet a member of EuroPris, with some of them taking a critical approach to the added value of this organisation, as they already had some contacts with other countries and partners. It was a balance of believing in what the organisation intended to be, in accepting the sometimes-critical attitudes of potential members and in understanding that the high ambitions of the Board could only be realized with a patient step-by-step approach.
Transforming an idea from scratch into a reality and seeing this reality being appreciated by a growing number of members and its value understood by its partners – seeing this happening and being part of this process from the very beginning, I would consider that this was for me the best part about working for EuroPris.
What are the 3 most important things you learned during your journey at EuroPris?
First of all, I learned a lot. My background was not the prison service, so all of this was new for me. My last position before starting with EuroPris was deputy director at the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, which is an organisation that works for the promotion of human rights and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. My only encounter with prisons during that time were two projects that I managed in cooperation with the Croatian prison service.
When I was asked to take the position in EuroPris I wondered if I was the right person at the right place. And one of the Board members responded that the fact that I did not have this prison background was actually a positive thing, as I would be totally open and free in my approach and thinking and not being biased in any way. I think we are often inclined to surround ourselves with persons that have a similar background and experiences, while it can actually be very refreshing to bring persons in that are new to your subject and therefore can take a different approach, outside of the tunnel that we sometimes find ourselves in.
As I mentioned before, the organisation was not greeted immediately with open arms by all our potential members. And that was also understandable. If one becomes a member and pays a fee, you want to know what you are paying for. That is quite difficult at the very start, when not much more than the idea exists. Of course, first of all, you have to believe yourself in the value of the story that you are telling – and tell the story enthusiast, but modest at the same time. It is also important to show that you have understanding for the doubts of others, to be patient and to accept that it will take time to demonstrate the real value of the organisation. Listening carefully to the needs of the organisations that we wanted to attract as members of EuroPris and addressing those needs, turned out to be very important in getting the trust of our network.
It is hard to select only three learning points, but one can definitely not miss. As I mentioned before, my background was not in prisons. As every other ‘outside’ person, I knew little about what a prison actually is and what it means for the persons working there and for the persons serving their sentence. During my time at EuroPris I have visited many prisons all around Europe. The first thing I noticed during those visits was that prisoners are actually people like you and me. They suddenly became much more than just a category called “prisoner”. And often, when I talked to them, I thought they were actually nice people, wondering what they could have done for ending up in a prison. Seeing prisoners as a category rather than as a person largely impacts on the way they are treated. The public perception of a prisoner is so different from the actual situation and that often hampers the political support for what is actually needed in prisons. What really astonished me in a positive way is the enormous dedication of prison services and their staff to work with the prisoners, to understand and react to their needs and to interact with them in a friendly and respectful manner as normal human beings with rights and obligations. Maybe this was the real driving force for me within EuroPris, to see during our events and visits, with how much enthusiasm and energy prison staff is constantly looking for better ways to provide for a humane treatment of prisoners. Probably I am preaching to the converted here, but let me still say it. We all know that prisoners one day return to our society and how well this will go depends for a substantial part on what is happening during their time in prisons. We can only be grateful to the prison staff on all levels that work so hard to prepare prisoners for a return to society in the best possible way.
What/who has been the biggest influence on you?
Coming from the outside and knowing little of prison services, most important for me was the guidance that I had from the Board of EuroPris. The Board of EuroPris consists of a maximum of ten (deputy) Director Generals of prison services. The members of the first Board were also the founding members of the organisation. Before Covid we met three times a year with the Board for a day to discuss and reflect on the development of EuroPris. But also in between meetings, Board members where always available to me for support and guidance. The guidance of the Board has always been essential to me in the strategic development of the organisation, but also when it came to difficult management decisions. That was essential to me in my daily work. With some of the Board members I have become close friends, and we still meet from time to time, even when they are no longer working for the prison service anymore. Professional friendships turned personal and will hopefully stay for a long time.
Even when I was supposed to only mention the biggest influence, there is one more person that left an impression that stayed with me throughout all the years. It came from William Rentzmann, who was for many years the Director General of the Danish prison and probation service (also a Board member of CEP for many years). At our second Annual General Meeting in Brussels he reminded us that EuroPris is an organisation of and for prison practitioners. It is not a travelling circus of persons that go from one international conference to the next one to meet with other international representatives, keeping each other busy and the feeling of being important. Stay with your feet on the ground and do what you have been established for – provide opportunities for exchange for the people working in prisons. This sounds of course pretty logical and straightforward, but it is at the same time so easily forgotten. He brought this so explicitly to our attention at that time, and it stayed with me loud and clear throughout the years. And I think it helped to stay with our feet on the ground, to stay focussed and actually do, as he said, what EuroPris was established for. At least this is what I hope, how he would today reflect on the functioning of the organisation.
What will you miss about working at EuroPris?
Well, the answer to this question might not come as a surprise. What I will miss most will be my colleagues at EuroPris and the very many colleagues in the EuroPris network that I had the pleasure to meet and who became more than just colleagues. A large part of my work at EuroPris was the organisation of meetings, workshops and conferences, but also the participation in a large variety of European gatherings. Travelling throughout Europe was a considerable part of my work, maybe sometimes even a bit too much before Covid changed our life. Still, once I arrived at the location and met many familiar and new faces, the travel hazzle was easily forgotten. It was a real pleasure to be part of the EuroPris family, a family of pleasant, enthusiasts and very committed persons. It was extremely inspiring to see the energy and drive of our European colleagues to constantly look for better options to assist prisoners in finding better ways to build a future outside and manage their life without crime. I know that I will stay in contact with some of the persons in my network as they have become more than colleagues, but being realistic, I also know, that this will just be a small part of this group. That is definitely a sad consequence of moving on.
And last but definitely not least I would like to address a word of thanks and appreciation to all my colleagues in the EuroPris office, those that work with us now, and those that have worked with us in the past. Each one of them has contributed to building the organisation, the network and the trust in our work. It was a small team at the start and although bigger, it still is a small team. This means that a lot of responsibility lies on each of the team members and my work in running the organisation was only possible because of their great commitment and tireless energy. The work at EuroPris was more than just another job and that is also because of all the nice people that I am going to miss. But I am positive that I will still see my colleagues from the office and hopefully some others in the years to come. I will stay curious to hear how things are going with the organisation and will love to have a drink or chat with my friends from the EuroPris family any time.
What’s next for you?
When I started with EuroPris I planned to stay for about 6 years in the position of Executive Director, because I experienced that being too long in such a position is not always healthy – not for the person itself and not for the organisation. But as we all know, in life things do not always go according to plan.
Finally, it took me a bit longer to figure out what my next step could be. Not an easy one after having the honour of such a great position. Lots of talking and reflecting and meeting people from my network brought a new challenge on my way. In September I will start as Regional manager of Victims Support Netherlands. The attention for victims at the European and national levels has largely increased with the European Directive on Victims coming into force some years ago. Also with EuroPris we had within the so-called Criminal Justice Platform, together with CEP and EFRJ for some years a good cooperation with Victims Support Europe and organized some events together. After all, also prison services have a role to play when it comes to victims. Although, my focus will be on The Netherlands now, I am positive that there will be possibilities to stay connected with my ‘old’ European colleagues on this subject in the future.
In conversation with Gustav Tallving
What made you want to work for EuroPris?
My professional passion is to combine knowledge and ideas to stimulate change. EuroPris in itself, is a promotor of change – change to the better; to a more humane prison practice, to improved offender management, treatment and re-integration. During my two years as a policy officer in the EuroPris secretariat I was struck by the diversity of correctional systems in Europe. Prison conditions vary a lot and so does the role of the prison officer. I felt triggered by this diversity and realized that every country needs to follow its own path in developing prisons, as all countries have different starting points, resources and contexts. There is no template to create a good prison practice, but development can be supported by learning from others’ knowledge and experiences.
What change do you aspire to bring with yourself?
That is not really up to me to decide. The strategic plan for 2021-2024 was approved by the members last year and it sets out the direction for the organisation. In terms of personal contributions, I hope to be able to strengthen the relations with the academia and involve researchers even more in EuroPris’ activities and outputs. I also hope to be able to increase awareness of the value of alternative sentences as well as early initiation of pre-release measures.
What motivated you to work with offenders?
A cocktail of different factors made me end up working with offenders. I am a sociologist and as such I am interested in individual life courses, power relations and human interaction. To this you can add a background in the Swedish army as a reserve officer. I also embrace universal values as humane treatment, justice and equality. Last but not least I have always been reflecting on moral issues and philosophy. Altogether, this is probably what brought me to work with offenders.
How is EuroPris different from the Swedish Prison and Probation Service?
Well, differences are immense! The SPPS has an annual budget of 1 billion Euros and 12 000 employees. My team at the Head Office consisted of 18 of the most highly merited experts in the agency, working on operational development in both prisons and probation. The EuroPris team is equally merited, but it is so much smaller. In EuroPris we have a few specialists within the team, on the transfer of prisoners, foreign nationals and ICT. But the main task for the team is to keep the organisation going and organize activities based on the needs of the members. The more I learn about the work of EuroPris, the more impressed I get with the number of activities and outputs that such a small organisation can produce. It is really good value for money!
What do you expect from the cooperation with the partner organisations?
I expect a continued good cooperation on topics of shared interest. CEP and EuroPris together cover the sphere of European corrections. In my view, prisons and alternative sentences can be seen as coordinates on a continuum of control – from high-security prisons to community supervision. What separates prisons from probation services in general is that prisons to a higher degree is oriented to (or limited by) the logic of incarceration. Probation on the other hand, is oriented to the logic of rehabilitation. In the future, I imagine these two logics being more equally applied within prison and probation. If my prediction is correct, CEP and EuroPris will find even more issues of shared interest in the future.