Prisons of the Future

Project Update March 7th  2016

Final Conference Prisons of the Future

On March 3rd and 4th the Final Conference Prisons of the Future took place in The Hague. We had 85 participants from 25 different countries represented by managers from prison and probation services, academics, researchers and legal professionals. The conference key note speakers presented on  the causes and purposed of punishment; on the impact of prison architecture and design. The five project partners presented their views on recent developments and future trends. In parallel workshops the conference participants discussed criminal justice issues related to innovative (non) prison options such as alternative sanctions, new prison concepts, perspectives of offenders and/or citizens, the abolition of prisons as a last resort and the professional development of prison and probation services.

Download the conference presentations, summary report and final project report. 

View the photos of the two days of conference.

The conference report will be published on this website – for updates of new documents please check this site. By the end of March we expect to have all documents published.

Project Update February 1st 2016

Final Conference Prisons of the Future

3-4 March 2016, the Hague, Netherlands

The Prisons of the Future project started in April 2014. Project leader is the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency. During the project implementation scientists, policy makers and expert practitioners from the prison systems of various countries shared their visions about the future of corrections.

What are the kind of prisons we need in the future? Can we even imagine a future without prisons? Which new alternatives to detention can we imagine? How can prisons of the future balance different principles, such as isolation from society, restoration, public safety, and reintegration into society? Which innovations influence the prison & probation services as well as the penal system? How can our new prisons or new alternatives take into account needs of offenders as well as needs of citizens?

During the final working conference of the Prisons of the Future project we like to discuss these and many other issues with you. We want to explore different options and discuss why and how they can be used in practice. If you are interested in these topics and you can contribute to discussions on these issues, please register for our final working conference!

Download the Conference programme.

The working conference is part of the European Union funded project Prisons of the Future. Besides the Netherlands, the Prison (and Probation) Services of Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Belgium were project partners. Next to that an expert committee consisting of Alison Liebling (UK), Eric Maes (Belgium) and Bas Vogelvang (the Netherlands) worked on the project. Also, the Confederation of European Probation (CEP) and the European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services (EuroPris) supported the project.

The project aims:

 to get insight into alternatives to regular imprisonment in different countries

 to assess cross-national alternatives to regular imprisonment

 to search the possibilities for implementing innovative prison options for the future

In the past two years our team has elaborated a number of ideas and approaches. During the conference we like to share and discuss this with you. Together with the conference participants, we want to develop a toolkit of innovative (non) prison options. If you want to participate in the conference, please apply through this link .There is room for 50 participants from European Prison Services, a maximum of two per country. If you are invited to join the conference, your (economy class) ticket will be paid up to a maximum of 300 Euro. The hotel costs for 2 nights will be fully covered by the project.

Project Update November 15th 2015

New inspirations for innovative prison options/alternatives to detention


The project Prisons of the Future started at April 2014. The objective of the project Prisons of the Future is to develop a toolbox of innovative prison options. The focus is on innovative options which can change current prison & probation practice. Project partners are coming from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands and the European Probation Organisation CEP as well as EuroPris. The first working session was in October 2014, where we explored current developments in prison & probation practice. On 4 -5 June 2015, the second working session of Prison of the Future took place in Antwerpen/Beveren. In this session, three best practices were further analyzed. The next session will take place at 19-November in Zaandam/prison of Zaanstad in the Netherlands. In this session, we want to develop innovative options for the future.

Current options

In order to understand the impact of innovative options, we need to know what kind of changes current options provoke in prison & probation practice. Prison & probation practice does not refer to one particular organization or one particular probation officer, but it refers to a number of institutional practices in which different actors are involved. It concerns multiple interactions between people on different levels. With regard to prison practice, we distinguish the following important types of interactions:

  • between the staff (‘street-level bureaucrat’) and the offender
  • between the staff and management
  • between the local prison or probation organization (street-level organization) and the national prison & probation service
  • between national prison & probation service and policy makers/societal context.

In general, the function of prison & probation practice can be defined as to offer possibilities within restraints. Restraints usually concern limitations of liberty, due to punishment, retribution and deterrence, whereas possibilities are related to re-integration, restoration and normalization. Prison & probation service can contribute to converting restraints, which are included in execution of sentences, into possibilities for readiness for change. Therefore, contributions of prison & probation practice imply optimizing opportunities within constraints. Opportunities can be increased by changing the current system instead of confirmation of the current system. Restraints and possibilities as well as different, apparently contradictory values can be tried to reconcile.

We tried to find the working mechanisms behind options to understand how prison & probation practice can function effectively. Working mechanisms fit within the ‘what works’ tradition and the tradition of realist evaluation. In addition to the question ‘what works?’, working mechanism specify what works for whom in what context.

Working mechanisms can, for example, diverge from singular interventions, related to a particular item in one context, to more comprehensive and more far reaching interventions, related to many contexts. It seems to be preferable to focus on more comprehensive and more far reaching interventions.

Whereas current options usually confirms the current prison and criminal law system, innovative options primarily should change the current system. We found out that we all are still ‘incarcerated’ by our current prison & probation system and that it is not easy to jump across the borders of the current paradigm. Working mechanism behind innovative options should preferably relate to the mechanism of boundary scanning for groundbreaking or innovative interactions that provoke change instead of confirming current interaction patterns.

New inspirations to change  the current prison system

We tried to imagine what would happen when there are no prisons anymore. In this way, we tried to extend current trends to the future. Possible future scenario’s are, for example:


In preparing the next session, the Dutch team searched for new inspirations for prisons of the future

They elaborated on the scenario’s above and discussed the following ideas:

  • the prison could be better embedded in its surroundings, by greening and painting the building in colors that match to the environment.
  • the entrance of the building could be reshaped like a reception that welcomes you.
  • the stay in prison should be based on trust; prisoners start their program in a regime with many liberties.
  • in the prison of the future, it should also be possible for a prisoner to prolong his stay in prison voluntarily.
  • from the perspective of normalization we, accordingly, should organize imprisonment as `open’ as possible.
  • To develop innovative options for the future, it might be interesting if the court not imposes a prison sentence, but only a deprivation of freedom for a certain period. The free-form sentence can be executed in different ways, taking into account risks and needs of the offender.

In our 3rd working session we will search for more new inspirations and ideas, also derived from the other participants of other countries. We will make the ideas more concrete by means of a gaming/simulation.


Project Update July 15th 2015:

The second working session of the project took place 4 -5 June 2015 in Antwerpen and the prison of Beveren, Belgium. The focus was on Electronic Monitoring, Circles of Support and Accountability and Prison Cloud. All three practices were considered as ‘promising’ practices for the future. The objective of the session was to explore their ‘working mechanisms’. The practices of EM, COSA and Prison Cloud demonstrate that in comparison to traditional methods of imprisonment, balances are changing. Balances change in favor of support instead of control and in favor of internal instead of external control. When offering offenders more freedom with regard to specific areas of life it appears that more and different objectives, such as reintegration, restoration, normalization and reducing recidivism can be achieved at the same time.

Electronic Monitoring (EM)

Eric Maes, member of the expert team of Prison of the Future, elaborated about the use of EM in Belgium. At this moment, EM is applied in Belgium in different stages of the criminal justice process. A distinction can be made between the use of EM in the pre-trial phase, the use as an autonomous sanction, and the use as a front door or back door option in the execution of sentences. Sometimes EM is also added as a special condition to a sentence. Maes argued that there is not just one recipe of EM. It is used for many different objectives.

Delphine Vanhealemeesch performed in-depth interviews about the experiences of offenders and their families or co-residents with EM and the impact it has on their lives. She found that offenders generally prefer EM above imprisonment. These preferences are understandable with respect to the different degrees in the limitation of their freedom. EM reduces the deprivations of liberty only to certain geographical restrictions and time restrictions, because the offender has to be at home at certain hours.

Vanhealemeesch distinguishes in her research the gains and pains of EM, not only for the offender, but also for their families.

The project team concluded that EM is not only about electronic control, but also about human assistance, varying degrees of freedom with regard to different areas of life, internal activation of the offender and it also has a punishing effect on persons close to the offender. The working mechanism of EM seems to be dependent on the balance between external and internal control and the relation between control and support.

Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA)

Bas Vogelvang, member of the project expert team, introduced COSA. COSA works with circles of professional and non-professional persons that provide support for sex offenders. The circle closest to the offender are non-professional volunteers from the community . They are ‘delivery systems of resilience’ for the sex offenders as well as the communities. The circles facilitate social inclusion, behavioral change, risk reduction & risk management, and evaluation & improvement. The focus is not only on reintegration, but also on restoration. Attention is paid to physical, social and moral incapacitation of offenders.

Ann Castrell illustrated how the city of Antwerpen is dealing with COSA.

The project team concluded that COSA has to be related to support & control, as well as to reintegration & restoration. The working mechanism of COSA depend on real-life contact between volunteer and offender and a balance between involvement of volunteers and professionals. Also, the balance between community interests and offender’s interests is crucial.

Prison Cloud

Bart de Lepeleire, member of the Belgian project team, introduced Prison Cloud of the prison of Beveren and Steven Van De Steene, CIO of the Belgian Prison Service, explained how it works in practice. Prison Cloud was specially developed to support a variety of services. It offers an infrastructure for the offender to independently operate from his cell services such as phone calls, e-learning, scheduling of appointments, movie rental, purchase of products and access to his personal files. The system’s safety is an important (political) issue. The access to the system is tailor made for each offender and the freedom to communicate with the outside world is adapted to the specific requirements of the offender.

The project team concluded that Prison Cloud offers an integral solution for the social infrastructure of the prison. The working mechanism of Prison Cloud is a balance between external electronic control, internal control as well  independence and self-reliance of the offender. It requires a balance between support and control.

The promising practices of EM, COSA and Prison Cloud demonstrate that in comparison to traditional methods of imprisonment, balances are changing. Balances change in favor of support instead of control and in favor of internal instead of external control. When offering offenders more freedom with regard to specific areas of life it appears that more and different objectives, such as reintegration, restoration, normalization and reducing recidivism can be achieved at the same time.

Project Update May 15th 2015:

Prisons of the Future:  sharing prominent practices

The European project Prison of the Future aims to get insight into alternatives to regular imprisonment in different countries and to assess cross-national alternatives. What can we learn from the present and the past and what kind of realistic future options of our prisons can be developed?

The project started in April 2014. Project partners are coming from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands and the European Probation Organisation CEP as well as EuroPris. The first working session took place in October 2014. We informed each other about current trends in our countries with regard to prison and probation practices. The second working session will take in June 2015. During this session three ‘prominent practices’ will be studied in-depth: electronic monitoring, Circles of Accountability and Support (COSA) and Prison Cloud. During the session one of the new Belgian prisons in which prison cloud is applied, will be visited; the prison of Beveren.

Until now, we discovered many similarities between countries with regard to recent developments in prison and probation practices, e.g., use of electronic monitoring; more attention paid to personal trajectories, in which different sanctions are combined to shorten time in prison; a more prominent role of probation (with more focus on supervision/control); conditional detention/contract treatment; and community services as an alternative to detention for light offences). Also, prison and probation services have become more professionalized, e.g., with regard to risks and needs analysis. Efficiency becomes a more important guiding principle.

Generally, developments in prison and probation practices show an evolutionary pattern of change. The common developments as well as the differences in prison and probation practice can be explored and understood from a model of comparative analysis, based on the socio-ecological model of Bronfenbrenner. The model distinguishes the individual (the prisoner/offender), the microsystem (prisoner/offender in its direct environment, i.e., areas of life within/without the prison), the mesosystem (connection between microsystems, i.e., prison in relation to local community), the exosystem (context of the mesosystem, i.e., prison system or criminal justice system) and the macrosystem (context of an exosystem, i.e., political economy, laws, politics, society).

At the beginning of the project we assumed that ‘alternatives’ to detention had to be distinguished from different types of detention within prisons or prison options. However, the difference between ‘alternatives’ to detention and ‘prison options’ is not absolute. The dichotomy between ‘in prison’ or ‘out of prison’ seems to blurr. Detention has more characteristics of a continuum instead of a dichotomy. In practice, different kind of sanctions are combined and influence the time spent in prison; they shorten detention time. For example, electronic monitoring can be used as an alternative to detention, but also as a front door option or a back door option. The differences and similarities between alternatives and prison options can be characterized by a ‘funnel’ with different layers: (other) sanctions; pre-trial (conditional) detention, (conditional) prison sentence, stay in prison, (conditional) release, out of prison.

Main guiding principles for prison and probation practice are normalisation, restoration, rehabilitation, public safety, proportionality, deterrence, efficiency, reintegration, professionalism, proportionality, moral quality of life, and human/social capital. Some basic dilemmas can be distinguished such as punishment & retribution versus reintegration & restoration; individual needs versus societal needs, and normalization versus isolation from society. In practice, it is tried to balance between these criteria/dilemmas. However,  particular circumstances such as incidents, and political and policy interventions, can make it hard to weigh these criteria. Consequently, the focus can change to one of the extremes (such as isolation from society due to public safety or a focus on supervision/risk & control).

Three prominent practices are selected for further analysis: electronic monitoring, COSA and prison cloud. We look for criteria for assessing these three practices. More specifically, we try to translate Liebling’s criteria for moral quality of life in prison to electronic monitoring, COSA, and future prison options such as Prison Cloud. Other criteria are derived not only from experiences from prisoners/offenders, but also from other audiences, such as the general public. The analysis should result in explicating the working mechanisms of these prominent pratices.

At the end of the project we want to develop a ‘cookery book’ with recipes and essential ingredients for prisons of the future.

Many countries are searching for alternatives to regular imprisonment, due to prison overcrowding or budget cuts. A current alternative to regular imprisonment is home detention, combined with electronic monitoring. Whereas imprisonment isolates offenders from society on almost all areas of life, home detention restricts only a few areas of life. A continuum of alternatives to regular imprisonment can be distinguished, varying from very high security levels, where inmates are totally separated from society, to very low security levels where offenders function in the community.

The Prisons of the Future project will be searching and researching alternatives to regular imprisonment and advise on innovative solutions for future implementation.

To get insight into alternatives to regular imprisonment in different countries

From current scientific knowledge on prisons, variables can be derived, such as the formal regime, the social climate, criminality and offenders’ characteristics, and outcomes. Outcomes vary from offenders’ changed behaviors, to offenders’ adaptation to the institutional context, and systemic effects such as recidivism, cost reduction and restoration to victims. On these variables a comprehensive framework will be built to describe alternatives to imprisonment.

To assess cross-national alternatives to regular imprisonment

Very few hard, evidence-based data are available on alternatives to regular imprisonment. From the methodological perspective of realist evaluation the project will focus on why interventions do (not) work in particular circumstances. Criteria are derived to assess alternatives and to define their working mechanisms.

To search the possibilities for implementing innovative prison options for the future

Innovative prison options for the future will be developed. Countries will share experiences and learn from each other how innovative prison options for the future can be implemented, taking into account the political and institutional context.

The objectives will be attained on the basis of a participatory policy analysis methodology which combines scientific insights and subjective and tacit knowledge. During the interactively shaped process different perspectives and arguments are intertwined and a comprehensive policy framework is built.

Within the project it is planned to organize three working sessions with three representatives of each country; a practice-oriented scientist, an expert-professional from the prison system, and a policy maker. Each working session will be prepared on the basis of input from external experts and national teams. The final results will be presented and debated during a concluding conference and in a final report.

  • the first working session is oriented at drawing up national trends of penal policy in the last decade and alternatives that have been considered.
  • the second working session selects a few best practices, such as an open, low security prison, and home detention with electronic monitoring, in order to assess them in depth on different criteria.
  • the third working session focuses on exploring implementation problems that will be encountered by applying innovative prison options for the future and tackling these problems.

Number and types of beneficiaries

Primary beneficiaries are the participants in the working sessions. Secondary target groups are scientists, policy makers and prison practitioners in different countries who benefit from the intertwinement of practice-based, scientific and policy arguments. Finally, victims, offenders and the general public in Europe will benefit from innovative prison options which take into account different interests.

The project is aiming at achieving the following results:

  • impression of a future landscape of prisons of the future
  • common framework for analyzing and assessing alternatives to regular imprisonment and insight into working mechanisms of alternatives
  • a comprehensive policy frame that combines retribution, rehabilitation and restoration
  • a toolkit of innovative prison options and possibilities of application

Latest project activities

The project started at 1 April 2014. Until now the different countries involved composed a national team that will reconstruct the prison and probation practices in their country. Also a CEP team is composed to reconstruct probation practice. The national teams and the CEP-team will have their first working session together at 2-3 October 2014 in the Netherlands. The national teams and the coordinating project group of the Dutch Institutional Agency are supported by an expert team. The expert team consists of Alison Liebling from England, Eric Maes from Belgium en Bas Vogelvang from the Netherlands.

Project Duration: 1.4.2014 – 31.3.2016

Lead Partner: Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency

Project Partners: Criminal Sanctions Agency, RISE (Finland); Belgian Prison Service; Swedish Prison and Probation Administration; Department of Prisons and Probation (Denmark) Prison and Probation Department (Norway); EuroPris; CEP

Contact persons: Cisca Joldersma, Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency,

Saskia de Reuver, Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency,


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