News & Views

Following protocols in an orderly way and fostering communication between detainees and staff enabled the Penitentiary Institution in Vught, The Netherlands, to deal with Covid-19

Wendy, Deputy Director Care in PI Vught

Wendy, the Deputy Director Care in Vught’s Penitentiary Institution (PI) in the southern part of The Netherlands tells CUP about how they managed to cope with the Covid-19 outbreak in the prison and how the pandemic actually helped strengthen trust between staff and detainees. See our infographic for more information on the situation in Dutch prisons and in PI Vught. 


What is your job description? What was your work routine before the pandemic?

“I work full time as Deputy Director Care in a Penitentiary Institution (PI). An important element of this PI is the psychiatric centre. There, we house prisoners with serious multiple psychiatric problems. In collaboration with the Director of Care (psychiatrist), Ι am responsible for the medical-psychiatric-forensic care and treatment provided to the prisoners within the institution aimed at stabilization and preparation for effective social reintegration. We ensure and facilitate the quality of healthcare given by healthcare professionals.

Counseling of detainees aims at reducing risk factors and increase protecting factors in order to increase the chance of a successful reintegration in society in a safe and responsible manner and to continue necessary care. That way we contribute to the security of society, on the one hand, through implementation of custodial sentences and custodial measures and, on the other hand, by counseling and monitoring detainees with severe mental health problems and psychiatric disorders to reduce the risk of criminal behavior. This contributes to the perspective of an autonomous existence of the detainee. The monitoring and counseling is multidisciplinary and  ensures a safe living and counseling environment.”


Has this work routine changed significantly during the pandemic outbreak?

“The province, where the PI is located, was the region in the Netherlands where the first and most of the Covid-19 patients of the country in the beginning of the pandemic were diagnosed. That made us aware of the severity of the problem at an early stage. We put together a crisis team with professionals of different expertise (healthcare, security, logistic, facility, forensic, communication, quality etc.), starting early march. Each day started with a meeting discussing the latest instructions and developments, emerging questions and problems. We started 2 telephone helplines for all staff members, one for practical questions regarding daily work and the virus and one for psychological support. We developed an internet page for internal use, where staff members could find instructions of all kind relating to Covid-19 and how to continue working in a safe way and inform detainees. In March, April and May, my work mainly included Covid-related activities. At the moment, we are anticipating a new reality and  implement the program as it was before the pandemic taking into account all the Covid-19 measures.”


Are there Covid-19 cases in the prison you work/ Are the Covid-19 cases nationally in prisons of your country?

“In the beginning, there was a very strict testing policy nationally because of the shortage in testing material. On April 13 the first detainee in our PI tested positive to Covid-19; a few days later a second detainee in our PI also tested positive. No new infections have been recorded since. Besides detainees, a number of staff members also tested positive. Fortunately, everyone has now recovered. Nationally within the prison system, there were a total of 16 detected Covid-19 infections by mid-August.”


What is the short-term and  long-term institutional response to the Covid-19 outbreak as regards prisons in your country?

“Short term measures have included reducing visitors (both relatives and professionals) to strictly necessary, as in case of an (medical) emergency. Legal counselling took place by video connection, family visits stopped. We let detainees keep in touch with their relatives using video connection or by phone. Release permits for detainees were temporarily stopped. We worked in a compartmentalized way to reduce contact between detainees of different departments during activities. Keeping a social distance between detainees and staff is not always possible. We did, however, by adjusting the group size for activities so that social distancing (also in common areas) could be maintained as much as possible between detainees and between detainees and staff . We focused on strict monitoring of Covid-19 symptoms in accordance with national procedures. Detainees with symptoms were isolated in their own cell (1 person). If the symptoms and their condition got worse, they were transported to a special penitentiary care facility that was prepared for Covid-19 cases.

The ministry implemented instructions and measures aiming to prevent the spread of Covid-19, manage existing cases and coordinate the purchase and distribution of protective materials for all Dutch penitentiary institutions. Instructions were, and still are, aimed at preventing Covid-19 and maintaining safety and quality of life in the institutions by making adjustments in activity programs in accordance with national Covid-19 guidelines. This concerns both short and long-term measures.

A prison is an environment that is designed for control. In the current circumstances therefore the conditions and facilities could be adjusted to prevent the contamination and spread of the virus. Since our institution has different regimes aimed at safety and / or guidance, buildings are designed to house small groups of detainees and most of them stay in a single cell.

As everywhere else in the world, the outbreak of Covid-19 also had a major impact on detainees and employees. As a result of the measures taken, many detainees felt disconnected from their relatives and, in addition to the concerns for their own health and that of their family, they were also partially limited in their program and activities. Many staff members had to come to work despite their concerns and sometimes difficult home situations. Thanks to the efforts of both staff and detainees, it was possible to keep everything running smoothly and to keep it safe and manageable.”


Although precautionary measures were taken inside the prisons, it is widely known that communicable diseases have always been a problem in prison settings where overcrowding and poor hygiene conditions create a perfect breeding ground for viruses. How can the right to health of detainees be upheld in a closed environment where it is near impossible to implement social distancing?

“The conditions and facilities in Dutch prisons are generally good. There is no overcrowding, most inmates stay alone or with 2 people in a cell, not exceeding the overall capacity. There is a lot of attention for health care, prevention and human environment. Just like the society, the biggest challenge is raising awareness and changing behaviour by adhering to the measures; this applies to both detainees and staff”.


Were you personally afraid for your health during the pandemic outbreak? What coping mechanisms and habits did you develop in order to address this highly stressful period?

“No, I wasn’t afraid, as I have the personal capacity of putting things into perspective and using common sense. It’s not that I’m pretending Covid-19 doesn’t exist; there is always concern but this should not hinder and turn into extreme fear of getting sick. I did notice that due to the combination of work pressure during the lockdown and the continuous media attention on Covid-19, I had to take more conscious moments to relax. So, occasionally, I consciously shut myself off and took some distance by doing other things in order to relax by reading a book, watching a movie or spending time in our garden.”


How were issues related to this project (educational and employability projects) more specifically affected during the pandemic?

“Covid-19 has had no influence on the executive level of training and education for the CUP project. The reason is that we are still in the research phase. Covid did however have a lot of influence on the CUP development in this respect, as the practical possibilities of on-site research were limited and we were unable to meet each other physically.

In general, the virus affected the daily activity program in the way that most of the activities took place in adapted form, such as education, work and sports. The activities of detainees who work outside the institution, in the context of reintegration, and activities that depend on volunteers were temporarily stopped. It was positive to see initiatives emerging in various departments by both staff and detainees in order to replace other activities to organize replacement activities.  For example, the department of education and communication established ‘Prison television’ with tips for detainees on how to perform relaxation exercises, religious worship, informational and entertainment activities. The department of sports organized different challenges and a prison quiz for all the detainees, where each one could participate individually. A staff member started a ‘Covid-proof’ bakery as a daytime activity for some vulnerable detainees who could not continue normal work activities. Detainees and staff members spoke to each other about respecting the Covid-19 measures and felt jointly responsible.”


What is the situation like now? What would your proposals be for better coping with such outbreaks in the future?

“It is currently under control. Large-scale and accessible testing is possible and can provide detailed information on the situation. In case of a new outbreak in a particular location, targeted measures can be taken at an earlier stage than before. Not only the institution, but the whole country (and the whole world) have learned and are still learning from the outbreak. It’s important that we evaluate the lessons we have learned; the measures have become a new normal. We have learned a lot in crisis management and this experience will be useful for us in the future. Regardless of the challenge that comes our way, the most important thing is to remain humane in penitentiary institutions and inform staff and prisoners properly, explain why we need to take measures and show empathy for each other.”