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Netherlands; Norway: Dutch Prisoners Sue Unsuccessfully to Prevent Transfer of Norwegian Convicts to Luxury Cells

(Mar. 30, 2015) A Dutch court ruled on March 6, 2015, that long-term prisoners, serving ten years to life imprisonment, who currently live in “luxury cells” in Norgerhaven Prison must give up them up to make way for Norwegian convicts who are to be transferred to the facility based on an agreement reached between The Netherlands and Norway. (Dutch Cons Must Vacate Cells for Norway: Court, THE LOCAL (Mar. 6 2015).) The “luxury cells” have views of the countryside, and the prisoners can cook their own food, grow vegetables, and keep chickens. They also enjoy a generous period of daily exercise, their own hobby space, 55-channel individual televisions, and the option to paint a wall of their cells a color of their choosing. (Id.; Jan Hennop, Dutch, Norwegian Convicts Angry over ‘Luxury’ Cell Deal, YAHOO (Mar. 2, 2015) [has picture of a Norgerhaven cell].) )

The District Court of The Hague ruled against the 18 Dutch inmates who had brought suit against the government in an attempt to stop the transaction. (Dutch Cons Must Vacate Cells for Norway: Court, supra; ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2015:2352, Rechtbank den Haag, Case No. C-09-481220 KG ZA 15-65 (Mar. 6, 2015).) In the judge’s view, “the hiring out of the Norgerhaven prison to Norwegian authorities to house Norwegian prisoners is not unlawful,” but he determined that the state must “present the plaintiffs with an adequate alternative,” which would “focus on the same special detention regime for long-term prisoners should they be transferred there.” (Dutch Cons Must Vacate Cells for Norway: Court, supra.) However, the court denied the prisoners’ petition that if transferred they be transferred as a group. The court also noted that if Norgerhaven is made available to the Norwegian authorities after parliamentary approval, it must be done in accordance with the provisions of the Prisons Act on prisoner transfer decisions. (ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2015:2352, supra, ¶¶ 4.8 & 4.9.)

The Agreement

The agreement, signed on March 2, 2015, involves the transfer of 242 Norwegian prisoners to the Netherlands, for €25 million. Norway is seeking to reduce the backlog of its criminals, numbering over a thousand, who are waiting to serve their sentences, while the Netherlands has been in the process of shutting down a number of prisons. According to Norwegian Minister of Justice and Public Security Anders Anundsen, “[f]or Norway this is historic,” being “the first time we have entered into such an agreement with another country.” (Norway Signs Deal to Rent Dutch Prison Places, THE LOCAL (Mar. 2, 2014).)

The agreement will apply provisionally for three years, with the option of a one-year extension. A Norwegian director will be appointed to run Norgerhaven and oversee a Norwegian prison regime; the rest of the staff will remain Dutch. The agreement provides for 239 full-time employees to remain employed within the prison system. Employees will receive training in Norwegian law and prison culture and will also be given the opportunity to take an English course. If possible, the first prisoners are to be transferred on September 1, 2015. (Noorse gevangenen in september naar Nederland [Norwegian Prisoners to Netherlands in September], Custodial Institutions Agency [Dienst Justitiële Inrichtingen, DJI] of the Ministry of Security and Justice website (Mar. 2, 2015).)

A Norwegian government advisory body conducted an analysis in 2013 indicating “that there is a significant backlog of maintenance work needed to be carried out in Norwegian prisons, estimated to cost between NOK 3.3 and 4.4 billion. It is possible that the maintenance work will cause prisons or branches of prisons to close temporarily.” (Press Release, No. 53, Talks on Leasing Prison Capacity in the Netherlands, GOVERNMENT.NO (Sept. 8, 2014).)

Reportedly, the only other arrangement of this kind in Europe is an agreement between Belgium and The Netherlands; since 2010, 500-600 Belgian convicts have been held in Dutch prisons. (Tove Gravdal, Mangler flertall for fengselsplan [Lack of a Majority for Prison Plan], MORGENBLADET (Feb. 13, 2015).) The Dutch have predicted that in the next five years, the prisons will have about 700 prison cell vacancies.

Dutch prisoners are not the only parties dissatisfied with the agreement. The policy is not entirely welcome in Norway, either. Hadia Tajik, deputy leader of the Labour Party opposition, has argued “that the money would have been better spent upgrading and expanding Norwegian prisons.” (Norway Signs Deal to Rent Dutch Prison Places, supra.) The Norwegian organization “For Relatives of Prisoners” (For Fangers Pårørende, FFP), which provides advice and support to prisoners’ relatives and works to raise awareness of their situation and needs, issued a consultation paper criticizing the proposal to rent prison capacity abroad and suggesting the use of alternative measures. (Høringsuttalelse fra For Fangers Pårørende (FFP): Om endringer i straffegjennomføringsloven (straffegjennomføring i annen stat mv) [Submission of For Relatives of Prisoners (FFP): On Changes in the Act on Execution of Punishment (Sentences in Another State, etc.)], FFP (Mar. 6, 2015).)

Future Steps

For the agreement to take effect, the Norwegian Parliament must approve it and also adopt an amendment to the Act on the Execution of Punishment, etc. (Sentencing Act) [Lov om gjennomføring av straff mv. (straffegjennomføringsloven)]. The plan and the proposed amendments are reportedly to be sent to the Parliament in April (Norway Signs Deal to Rent Dutch Prison Places, supra; Gravdal, supra.) The Dutch Parliament must also approve the agreement and amend its own Prisons Act (Penitentiaire beginselenwet), as the court had indicated. The objective is to start sending Norwegian convicts to the Dutch facility in the summer of 2015. (Gravdal, supra.)