“Do you know where you are going to?” This line from the famous song Theme from Mahogany comes Ciska Joldersma to mind when thinking of the EU-funded project Prisons of the future. The project looks into the possibilities and trends for the future of prison and probation practices. “But before answering the question of what we are aiming for, we first need to know where we stand now.” Joldersma, Project Leader of Prisons of the Future,  outlines the current landscape of prison and probation and what realistic dreams we may have for 2050.

Some project facts

Prisons of the Future is a  project that started in April 2014 and that will last for two years. Partnering  countries in this project are Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, together with EuroPris and CEP. Participants in the working groups are practice-oriented scientists, expert-professionals form the prison system, and policy makers.

Objects of the project are:

  1. to get  an understanding of  alternatives and additional sanctions and measures to imprisonment and probation, as well as internal innovations within prison and probation practice in different countries;
  2. to assess cross-national current options based on clear criteria;
  3. to search innovative use of prison in the future.

The subject Prisons of the Future is quite broad. To narrow it down, the project started to research the main current trends. What are the results?

“To think about the future, we first have to know where we are now. CEP has sent out questionnaires  to its partners, in order to find answers to two questions: what are the main developments in probation / alternatives to prison in your country since 2000? And which developments do you consider as innovative? We received a lot of very useful information. Electronic Monitoring, shortening custody (in Northern European countries) and further professionalization of probation are often referred to. In conclusion, what we see is that countries use different scenario’s, in which probation is sometimes integrated, sometimes separated and a lot of times used as alternative for imprisonment. Many choices can be distinguished. A first distinction can be made between the use of front-door and back-door alternative sanctions. Front-door options are introduced in order to avoid incarceration. They function as alternatives to regular imprisonment. Back-door options are introduced as a way of early release of prison. Many sanctions, such as community services, forensic care and electronic monitoring can be used as back- and front-door options. Furthermore pre-trial options and after-care options can be distinguished.”

In this wide variety of alternative sanctions, is it possible to identify some best practices?

“Based upon the inventory of the current trends and possible and desirable alternatives for detention, our next step is to identify best practices. Which is rather difficult, because each country has its own approach to probation, its own practical organisation, vision on detention and polical context.

Our next working session focusses on finding out what works under which circumstances. We will be selecting a few best practices in order to assess them in depth on different criteria, such as rehabilitation, public safety, restoration, proportionality and efficiency. For now, three developments can certainly be put on the list for further assessment. Electronic Monitoring,the Prison Cloud, which was introduced in Belgium, as an online service platform designed for the secure distribution of content for prisoner self-services and COSA (Circles Of Support & Accountability), already implemented in several European countries, based on volunteer work and community’s responsibility.”

 What promising developments do you foresee?

“It’s difficult to predict this in a European context. A lot depends on the political climate and the current state and organisation of imprisonment and probation in a country. But developments as individualized case management arrangements  are, in my opinion, very promising and in the end efficient and cost-effective. Also community involvement in criminal justice arrangements, as in COSA has very high potential for expansion.  And, as CEP stated, it may be useful in the future  to explore more closely the potential of probation services to replace more custodial time. Or, in other words, probation becoming a virtual prison.”

What do you consider the biggest challenge in this project?

“When we’re making an inventory of the current state of prison alternatives and probation, we always have to take into account the difference between what we say we do (espoused theory) and what we really do (theory-in-use). The  knowledge we have gathered so far regarding the developments and use of prison alternatives also raises the questions:  What should be the primary function of detention? What should be the balances  in opposite interests as public safety vs the individual needs of the offender and normalisation vs exclusion. What is needed, what is desirable?  Do we want an offender to be excluded from society, or do we also want him to be a father for his children during detention? What is the role of probation? When are alternative sanctions or imprisonment successful? And what is the definition of that success? These questions  are very relevant, but not all easily answered. I hope one of the outcomes of this project will provide some kind of a ‘control panel’ of all the possible alternative sanctions and considerations, with all the right buttons we can push and switch as far as needed, to come to mixture of realistic options of sanctions, reducing recidivism and supporting rehabilitation, balancing between individual and societal needs.”


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