Hanze in jail: a peek behind bars

Some 25,000 children in the Netherlands have a parent in prison. The Penitentiary Institution (PI) Veenhuizen, Esserheem location has a special department for fathers in detention: the Fathers’ Wing. The Living Lab 'Family Approach in Penitentiary Institutions' of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences has been conducting research there since 2018. A look behind the bars.


Once the phones are in a locker, IDs have been checked and the detection gates give the green light, the door goes off the lock in the former correctional institution in the Kolonie van Weldadigheid (Colony od Benificence, ed.) in Veenhuizen, which was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2021. Majestic oak trees set the courtyard of the Penitentiary in autumn colours. Prisoners exercise and smoke a cigarette there.

Children's Ombudsman

In 2017, Children's Ombudsman Margrite Kalverboer sounded the alarm: not a single prison in the Netherlands is child-friendly, while there are an estimated 25,000 children in the Netherlands with a parent in detention. Feelings of depression, stress, anger, sadness and a greater chance of anti-social behaviour are caused by the fact that children with a parent in detention suffer more often than their peers. They also have a greatly increased chance of becoming immates themselves later in life(source: Venema et al., 2022). In addition, the recidivism rate among ex-prisoners is high: 47 percent reoffend after two years. Since 2018, the Living Lab (Innovatiewerkplaats, IWP) Family Approach in Penitentiary Institutions has been investigating whether a stronger bond between father and child can positively affect detention harm among children.

The family officer

In the family room, family officer Hennie and intern Kyra (Social Legal Services) meet with the daddy committee. Complaints about filling out forms and questions about whether or not to listen in when dads video call with their children cross the table. Hennie has been a family officer on the Fathers' Wing since its inception in 2017. Making a prison child-friendly doesn't have to be very complex, according to Hennie. 'Relatively small things can already make a huge difference. Children find it exciting to visit their father in prison, especially the first time. But if this can be done in a relaxed way, in a child-friendly environment without bars, you can see them blossom very quickly. Fathers tend to keep quiet about being in detention. If you are in prison for four months, you can tell your child that you are working abroad, but if you are in detention for a long time, it becomes difficult. At the Fathers' Wing, the fathers can support their families and are involved in the daily routine. They work here every day to bond with their families.'

The Living Lab

Next door to the Fathers' Wing is the office of the Living Lab where project leader and lecturer-researcher Petrick Glasbergen and PhD student Simon Venema, together with students from a variety of studies, professionals within the PI and fathers in detention, have been looking for ways to make prisons more child-friendly since 2018. Some 140 students, mostly from Hanze University of Applied Sciences, following a variety of fields of study have contributed to the further development of the family approach in recent years. They conduct hands-on research and work with prison staff and the target group to improve contact between father and child. they offer a number of activities including parenting courses and workshops and they develop a website.(www.gezinsbenadering.nl) to post all articles, models and products about the family approach. They also organize activities for the partners of inmates so that they can also connect with each other. Training programmes such as 'Fathers in the father role' and 'Return to the family' give fathers insight into what detention does to the rest of the family and how they can deal with it better. A Fathers' Wing will also be opened at Norgerhaven location. The Living Lab is closely involved in that too.'

The department head

Department Head Frans has been working in the PI for 27 years and was born and raised in Veenhuizen. He monitors the frameworks and security on the Father Wing. His father already worked in PI Veenhuizen and he calls himself "a child of the Colonies. Not without pride, he calls Esserheem the most beautiful PI in the country and the Fathers' wing the most beautiful department. 'Esserheem is not a concrete tank, but one of the few PIs where you experience the seasons. That benefits the detention climate.' Frans sees inmates on the Fathers' Wing changing. 'The fathers do a lot together and there is a calmer atmosphere than on regular wards. There is little macho behaviour, the inmates feel safe to show their vulnerable sides. Men who started fights in other prisons walk in line here. They no longer fight the system and feel more human. Frans calls the cooperation with students very pleasant. 'They come with fresh eyes and new ideas and they develop projects through.'

The students

Petra de Raad and Fardau van der Mark are both fascinated by crime. Petra is studying Clinical Forensic Psychology and Victimology at the University of Groningen and Fardau is a fourth-year Applied Psychology student at Hanze. Together they are doing their internship and thesis at the Living lab. They are rotating in surveys interviewing mothers, children and prison staff at the Fathers' Wing. 'Our focus now is on building the national website, Fardau explains. 'Adding products such as posters, workbooks, workshops, trainings. All aimed at reintegrating and connecting with the family, making prisons more child-friendly and supporting the father-child relationship. We finish products that students started before us.'
The sisters in crime are going to write their thesis in the living lab. Petra: 'We want to show that the Fathers' Wing contributes to getting the recidivism rate down, an aspect which is still uncharted within this approach. There are a lot of data we can process for our research,' Petra explains. 'So nice that theses are not gathering dust in a drawer here, but that something is really being done with them,' Fardau adds.

The father

Rob has been on the Fathers' Wing since 2019. Before that, he was detained in Norway for three and a half years. He will be released in March 2023. Rob has six children, two of them minors. He has a lot of contact with his children. 'Reintegration is different when you see your children regularly. You really have something to gain as well as something to lose if you screw up here. I video-call a lot with my two youngest children and visit the oldest when I'm on leave. Only through contact with my children do I realize what I have done to them.

Good example

In the air yard, detainees sweep away autumn leaves. A friendly hello, the phones out of the lockers and the PI closes with a click. The visit to the Esserheem shows that family relationships can be greatly damaged by detention. Prisons can play an important role in mitigating that damage by supporting a family with a parent in detention. Esserheem's Fathers' Wing is a good example of this.

EuroPris Prison Achievement Award.
On June 20, 2022, out of 24 entries from across Europe, the Living Lab on Family Approach in Penitentiary Institutions was named the winner of the EuroPris Prison Achievement Award.

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