The future?

“Large, traditional prisons do not work. They’re outdated. So we must replace all of them with a range of much smaller institutions – ‘houses’ – each with different levels of security and support for detainees.”

DSCF3981This is Hans Claus.

Before I meet him, I’ve heard a lot about him from others working in the Belgium prison system.

“He’s a visionary.” “He’s a dreamer.” “He’s a fantasist.”

He’s certainly a man with passion… and with a bold idea.

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If Hans Claus gets his way, all prisons – including this one in the Flemish city of Oudenaarde, where he’s the governor – will be shut down. I ask him why:

As he puts it, prisons are from another era. They might have worked for that era, but they’re not working now. He wants to see all of Belgium’s 30-40 large scale prisons replaced by a network of hundreds of small scale detention houses.

His idea has grown into a project: De Huizen (“The Houses”).

De Huizen logo

The concept of De Huizen is designed “to capitalise on the experience of detention, using it to assist prisoners to work towards constructive reintegration in society following their release.”

This is what’s already meant to be happening – but of course, in the majority of cases, it isn’t happening.

So how would it work?

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Each ‘house’ – located in a regular neighbourhood (urban or rural) – holds around ten detainees. Some houses are ‘closed’ with high security, some are ‘closed’ with low security, and some are ‘open’. As far as possible, work and vocational training takes place in the outside world – with each detention house bringing “added value” to the neighbourhood (dogs refuge, cycle repair workshop, social theatre, art workshop, vegetable shop etc), thus “stimulating the mutual involvement and responsibility of prisoners and the wider society”.

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How would this reduce reoffending? Hans Claus explains:

Or, to put it another way:

“Because naughty boys do better in small classes.”

De Huizen flyer

At first, I’m thinking: “Who is this ‘ideas man’ with his crazy proposal?”

Hans Claus has, in fact, been a prison governor in Belgium for thirty years. He knows his subject – and he knows who he’s dealing with.

In 2010, the then Minister of Justice Stefaan de Clerck announced during a speech in Oudenaarde that he planned to build a new prison in Brussels to accommodate 1,000 prisoners. Characteristically outspoken, Hans Claus responded by saying the Minister would have been better to buy one hundred houses.

And so his idea began to take shape. Over two years, a steering committee of some 150 professionals and academics debated, argued, revised and refined the proposal. Finally, the Ministry agreed to a pilot project: when Brussels’ new prison opens in 2016, alongside it will be a small “detention house” for ten detainees.

It’s not really what Hans Claus is proposing… but it’s a start.

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Over the course of an hour, he outlines his proposal, shows me architectural models and details plans… and answers my questions.

I have so many questions.

How on earth is this going to work? Won’t it cost a fortune? How will the public, never mind politicians, be persuaded to support this idea? What will become of prison officers? And what about victims? Isn’t this too soft? Too risky?

He bats away all of my questions – and clearly enjoys doing so. “It’ll be much cheaper! Much safer! Much more humane!”

For a man who’s worked in the prison system for three decades, Hans Claus is full of energy, commitment and drive. Throughout our conversation he draws diagrams, scribbles down statistics, slams his fist on the table to try and convince me:

“I have a proposal! It’s elaborated, not by myself, but by hundreds of people! Parts of it are shown to be better in Norway! Why shouldn’t people want it? They want to go back to the Stone Age? If they don’t want it, they’re stupid! (laughs)”

His manner may be theatrical – eccentric, even – but his point is deadly serious. He’s seen so many failures in the system, and is convinced that there must be another way. Perhaps this is it.

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My meeting with Hans Claus at Oudenaarde Prison is the final stop within my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship, in my third and final country, Belgium.

Several people – particularly in Belgium – find it odd that I wanted to visit Belgium. They can understand why I chose Norway (with its low reoffending rates) and the Netherlands (with its falling prison population)… but in general, things in Belgium are going from bad to worse. The country’s prisons may offer some impressive work and education opportunities, but as I learned at the Institut National de Criminalistique et de Criminologie when I arrived in this country, the number of detainees has doubled in just thirty years. I’ve been told that morale amongst prison staff can be very low – officers frequently go on strike. The organisational structure of the penal system is frighteningly complex. And – perhaps most worryingly – my application to visit one particular establishment was politely declined by its governor, who said there wouldn’t be any point because “rehabilitation projects and other positive dynamics [at my prison] are virtually zero”.

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So, here’s the question I’d really like Hans Claus to answer. How is his plan ever going to come to anything in Belgium? Norway – quite possibly. The Netherlands – maybe. But Belgium?

“It’s because the system here has so many difficulties, with problems of strikes and aggression etc, that this plan might have a good chance in Belgium. Perhaps this is the only country in the world where this can begin.”

Hans Claus is well aware that he won’t live to see his dream realised. But that won’t stop him trying to get it started – in Belgium, and beyond.

It could work anywhere…

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