The Netherlands has too many prisons, so this is what it’s doing with them

Why not spend a night in the cells? Image: The Movement Hotel.

A decline in the prison population of the Netherlands, coupled with one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe – almost half that of the UK – has led to the importing of foreign prisoners and some surprising uses for empty Dutch jails.

Here are some of the wackiest ways in which unwanted prisons are being repurposed.

A School

Parents enrolling their children at the €14k+ a year British School of Amsterdam can be sure that their offspring will be taught in secure surroundings, although the word ‘detention’ is likely to bring back murky memories. The school’s new building is a former prison and is due to reopen its once heavily-bolted doors in 2020.

The Havenstraat campus, in Amsterdam’s expat heartland to the south of the city, is one of several new schools being built to address a shortage of international education for an expanding international workforce. In a statement on its Union-Jack-emblazoned website, principal Paul Morgan promises that the 13,500 m2 former jail with its 1,200 pupil capacity, will still have a “small-school, family feel”.

A Hammam

The Bijlmerbajes penitentiary is still a good place to get clean, even though the inmates have all been moved on. A total of 15 cells within the vast jail have been converted to a Hammam complex, providing facilities to steam, enjoy a full-body scrub, bathe and get a massage.

Image: Bijlmer Hammam.

It is the country’s first Syrian hammam and provides work opportunities for refugees from the asylum centre which occupies a neighbouring wing. The graffiti from the previous occupants remains as a reminder of bitter times past.

Guests can complete the luxury experience – and support other refugee workers – by dining in the prison’s new pop-up restaurant A Beautiful Mess or overnighting in the newly-opened Movement Hotel (see above for a pic). You might be sleeping in a converted cell, but you do have custody of the keys to your room.

A Children’s Party

The kids at the parties held at Leeuwarden’s Blokhuispoort prison in the north of the Netherlands are unlikely to be running wild. Caronen Entertainment lock up the little mischief-makers as part of their jolly prison-themed birthday celebrations. Children get a tour of the building and make their own robber’s mask in one of the cells. The medieval prison, which closed in 2007, has been extensively renovated and remodelled over the years, but the gothic spires and moated entrance remain a formidable sight.

An Escape Room

Wannabe criminals can don a boiler suit and step into their own adrenalin-filled prison drama with Prison Escape’s interactive escape room concept. Set in Breda’s dramatic Boschpoort prison, with its epic turrets and dome, the aim of the game is to escape and players have just three hours to work out how. The challenge begins in your cell with an unknown cellmate and ends, if you are successful, with freedom.

Image: Prison Escape.

At almost £60 a ticket, Prison Escape is not cheap, but then how many escape rooms involve an authentic setting, a cast of 80 actors, and up to 400 participant inmates?

A Restaurant

The chefs at the De Lik restaurant in Utrecht’s Wolvenplein prison won’t be doing porridge these days; instead diners can now expect a five-course meal.

Opened in March 2017, the restaurant prioritises organic, native ingredients and offers a surprise menu based on what’s seasonal and fresh.

 

Image: Restaurant De Lik.

The long waiting list is a testament to the success of this unusual dining experience, which is available just three times a month and likely to be short-lived as the council has plans to sell the building.

The tables butt up against cell doors in the long prison corridor and the galleried floor overhead creates an unsettling view, as if – at any minute – a group of detainees might emerge from the cells above. Speaking to news platform GreaterVenues.com in March, operational manager Freek van Kooten said the caterers hoped to create “a casual, laid-back atmosphere” with the new restaurant.


An Asylum Centre

For refugees new to the Netherlands, the long wait for your residency permit can feel a lot like serving time, and all the more so if you are being temporarily housed in a former jail.

Facilities to accommodate newcomers have been improvised from several of the country’s disused prisons, creating – In the best cases – pop-up communities offering language support, apprenticeships and even – at the Lola Lik in Amsterdam – a refugee radio station.

Residents who violate the centre’s rules or intimidate members of the community, risk being moved to yet another ex-jail, the Amsterbaken, in Amsterdam, a former juvenile detention centre for 14-23 year-olds.

Like the experimental prison which preceded it, the centre for troublesome asylum-seekers has a strict regime but allows residents to come and go.

Housing traumatised migrants in prisons has provoked debate in the Netherlands, and the Amsterbaken initiative, in particular, has come under attack from some refugee organisations. Speaking in the Volkskrant  earlier this year, Vluchtelingen Werk Nederland argued that it was not a case of simply “weeding out a few rotten apples” but instead improving the poor living conditions in these makeshift centres, which, they say, create a breeding ground for violence.

What Next?

As crime rates continue to drop in the Netherlands, the conversion of jails is likely to continue. The new uses are creative, clever and often controversial. But perhaps most innovative of all is the Netherlands’ progressive approach to law and order, which has made so many prisons defunct.

With the long-term trend showing a steep increase in incarceration in the UK, further investigation into the Dutch model and alternative strategies for both the prevention and treatment of crime seem the sensible way forward. Besides, Wormwood Scrubs is a great name for a hammam.

Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British journalist based in the Netherlands. She tweets at @DebNichollsLee.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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