COVID-19 can affect anyone, often resulting in difficult choices for the (Dutch) population, government and organizations. Unsurprisingly, this also applies to prisoners. After all, how can prison life continue as ‘normal’ when physical contact is almost impossible? At the Law Hub, it is a question that has occupied our thoughts recently - and who better to talk to than our colleagues from the Juridisch Spreekuur Gedetineerden (or the Legal Advice Centre for detainees).
Recently, partners and children of prisoners sent an urgent letter to the Dutch government, members of the House of Representatives, senior officials and institutional directors in which they explicitly asked for the regulations surrounding visitors to be relaxed. The minimal visiting hours and large plastic screens ensure that any personal contact is all but impossible. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like for the children who are unable to hug their parents in detention for months on end?
Logically, these new measures also affect organizations such as JSG who normally offer in-person consultations in three different prisons in the Netherlands. This foundation, which is located in the Amsterdam Law Hub, is fully run by volunteers - consisting of Law and Criminology students. They are focussing on penitentiary law; this means that detainees may ask them anything that is not substantively related to their criminal case. During the initial phase of the pandemic the volunteers made weekly visits at the three main prisons in Lelystad, Alphen aan de Rijn and Schiphol; however, now every consultation happens over the phone. Unfortunately, not everything in this process is going smoothly, according to JSG president Demi Sterk. ‘We must integrate with the working methods of the prisons. There’s a space in the reintegration center where detainees can call us. But because they’re always in need of an employee to facilitate this, the process is considerably slower, and we may not be able to collect all of the questions from detainees. Nevertheless, we are extremely proud of the fact that the consultation hours have been set up so quickly and that we’re able to continue our work.’
Unfortunately the virus has caused also other disturbances in prisons lately as inmates are generally staying in double cells. This means that if one coughs, the other one’s afraid of getting sick too. In order to have a better connection with detainees - in addition to JSG' regular activities - Demi publishes articles in Bonjo: the newspaper that is distributed in Dutch prisons every two months. 'I write about how we do our work during corona and why we decided to become lawyers.’
Please check this page for the other Free Legal Advice Centers of the hub.