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.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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