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Dutch open 'Big Brother' jail

BBC News | January 20, 2006

Fail to pay traffic fines or commit a petty theft in the Netherlands and you could find yourself electronically tagged inside a Big Brother-style jail.

The hi-tech jail in the central city of Lelystad opens, and locks, its doors to low-risk inmates this week.

Electronic bracelets track their moves while emotion recognition software monitors tempers - with good behaviour rewarded with privileges.

The justice ministry says the concept is a new form of detention.

It is hoped the prison will prove cheaper - with fewer guards needed - and help improve the behaviour of those inmates sentenced to less than four months.

If there is an intense discussion or fight, or aggressive screaming, the system will detect this
Hans Janssens

Justice ministry spokesman Hans Janssens says the treatment is focused on helping inmates take responsibility for their actions.

"We say that the biggest punishment is that you are not free to do what you want - you have to follow a daily programme, you can choose, but after five pm you are in the cell block and the doors are closed," he told the BBC News website.

"The press have called it 'Big Brother' or a youth hostel, but I can't comment on that."

In the 150-capacity prison, inmates are divided into cells of six - where they eat, sleep and do their own washing and cooking.

Incentives

The tags and touch-screen computers at the end of their beds allow them to organise their own daily schedules - with a choice of sports, recreation, personal development, education and outdoor activities.

The tag sends a signal every two seconds, so if a prisoner is not where he should be, an alarm will sound and he will lose out on credits for good behaviour. These can be used towards privileges such as extra phone calls, visiting time or the chance to swap cells.

The prison is also equipped with monitoring systems that detect aggression - as used by police in pub districts in the northern town of Groningen.

"If they are watching a football match and there is a goal and they are shouting, it will not react," says Mr Janssens. "But if there is an intense discussion or fight, or aggressive screaming, the system will detect this."

He adds that there are no cameras in the dormitories and microphones do not pick up inmates' conversations.

Pieter Vleeming, of the European Organisation for the Protection of Prisoners' Rights, said he didn't see the surveillance as a violation of rights.

He said he had few objections, but more training opportunities could be offered and suggested keeping low-risk offenders at home would be more effective.

Contact reduced

The Abvakabo FNV union, which represents prison staff, has raised concerns about the jail, which they see as a response to the justice system's need to cut costs.

Modern technology means fewer guards are needed - only six for 150 inmates instead of around 15.

There is also much less contact between guards and prisoners, which could make the job less interesting, said a union spokeswoman.

She told the BBC the facility looked secure, but the union would monitor all aspects of the experiment in coming months.

"Electrics can break down, and then what?" she said.

The prison will be run on an experimental basis for six months, with offenders being given the option of serving time at Lelystad.

Hardened criminals, people with heavy drug dependency or psychological problems will not be admitted.

 


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