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The Netherlands Has a Unique Problem — Empty Prisons

As the country with the highest incarcerated population in the world, America is spending billions of dollars trying to house over 2.4 million inmates. The Netherlands, however, has so many empty prisons that many of them are now being used to house refugees or store prisoners for Norway and Belgium.

The total number of inmates in Dutch prisons has dropped by a staggering 27% between 2011 and 2015, according to the Washington Post. If America’s prison population fell by 27%, nearly 600,000 people would be released. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Wyoming.

The Netherlands has countered the global tendency for prison populations to rise (up 20% from 2000-2015) by easing up on intense prosecutions of victimless crimes and practicing a “policy of toleration” with regards to soft drugs like marijuana. Nonviolent offenders will often receive community service sentences or ankle-bracelet monitoring systems.

The dozens of empty Dutch prisons have allowed the Netherlands to open its doors to asylum seekers from around the world.

“The rooms are intended for one or two people, there are often gyms, a good kitchen,” Janet Helder, a board member with the Dutch government agency responsible for housing asylum seekers, said to the Associated Press. “So in that sense, they tick many of the boxes we are looking at.”

Abdul Moeen Alhaji, a 16-year-old Syrian, said he was grateful to call a prison cell his home after suffering through the awful ordeal of living in a temporary camp outside the city of Nijmegen.

“I don’t feel that it is a prison,” he said. “What matters is that we are safe here.”


Nathan Wellman is a Los Angeles-based journalist, author, and playwright. Follow him on Twitter: @LightningWOW

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