VIPS: Volunteers in the Prison System

Gepubliceerd op 11 maart 2021 door Gevangenenzorg Nederland.

Sometimes it seems that The Netherlands has the highest proportion of judges to citizens in the world: one to one! Of course, I am joking. There are 17.5 million people in my country, and each has a strong opinion about what justice should accomplish in the aftermath of crime. For most of them, the face of justice looks backward and seeks to punish offenders for their crimes. I used to work at the Court of Appeals in The Hague, so I have experience with what it means to deal with crime by punishing those we convict.

But after leaving the Court of Appeals 25 years ago, I helped start Gevangenenzorg Nederland (GNd), an NGO in the field of reintegration. It is one of 100 affiliates of Prison Fellowship International (PFI), which works with over 60.000 volunteers all over the world. PFI has been in Consultative Status (Category 2) with the Economic and Social Council of the UN since 1983. My work with GNd has convinced me that justice has two faces. One looks back, but the second face looks ahead and asks prisoners, “How can we help you reintegrate into normal life when you are released?”

Holland’s Criminal Justice System: Figures and Facts

In the Dutch legal system, judges (1) must determine whether suspects are legally responsible for the crimes they have been accused of committing. Have they done the serious acts they are charged with and, if so, were they 100% responsible for their behavior? If both are true, the punishment is imprisonment (2).  Second, a judge may determine that defendants are 100% not responsible, in which case they cannot be punished. Instead the suspect will get a so-called “TBS measure,” which is treatment in a forensic psychiatric centre. The objective is to provide treatment to offenders so that they can one day return to society as contributing members. This can take some time: the average period of treatment is about seven years. A Dutch judges’ third option is to determine that the defendant was partially responsible and partially in need of treatment. The response in this case is a mixture of imprisonment and treatment. These offenders first serve a portion of their sentences in prison and then are transferred to a TBS institution for treatment. Every day, there are a little more than 9.100 prisoners and 1.300 TBS patients in the Dutch institutions. One single place in a forensic psychiatric centre costs daily € 585 versus € 265 for a prisoner.

Prisoners and Reintegration

About 35.000 prisoners are released from prison each year. 70% have served short sentences (shorter than 3 months). 93% are male. The recidivism rate is about 30% within two years. Forty seven percent of these will have committed a new crime (but those who have are not always sentenced to imprisonment). The Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency (3) is concerned with five basic conditions for re-integration. First, does the prisoner have appropriate identity papers, (necessary for obtaining work, housing, and so forth)?  Second, does the prisoner have housing? Third, does the prisoner have depts and a solution to pay it off? Forth does the prisoner have employment or an income? And finally, does the prisoners have a need for social care after detention. The 355 municipal governments have the formal obligation to help released prisoners realize a smooth reintegration. In 2019, the Association of Municipalities, Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency and the Dutch Probation Service entered into an agreement to improve a safe reintegration of the released prisoner.

Volunteers In the Prison System

Still there is a big need for after care capacity. Since 1997, NGOs recognized by the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency can visit inmates outside regular visiting hours. This frees prisoners from having to choose between using regular visiting hours to meet with his family or a volunteer. NGO visits take place in a so-called lawyer room, which means they are confidential and undisturbed by noise or constant controlling guards. About 40 NGO’s with about 4.000 volunteers are recognized (4). The yearly budget in the Ministry of Justice for NGO’s is € 4 million.

Over the years, I have witnessed a growing understanding of the value of volunteers in the prison system. I think there are two main reasons: Firstly, the general tendency of civil society and secondly the successful performance of NGO’s. It is impossible to think that governmental institutions can tackle all issues and challenges in a society. So the Governments policy is increasingly asking the society to participate in social action. A prison system can provide a prisoner with basic needs like food, safety, a bed and contact with family and friends. But ‘to turn around’ a prisoner’s life track after imprisonment clearly requires participation by society. In the past 25 years, NGOs have shown good performance, innovation and (societal) impact (5). Scientific research shows that the greatest asset of volunteers is ‘trust’. Prisoners are often suspicious of people who work professionally in the prison system. This is inherent to their position. The position of volunteers is the opposite: they go to prison Pro Deo, not as paid employees and without reporting to supervisors in the prisons. They have just one specific interest; the wellbeing of the prisoner.

Volunteers are VIPS - Volunteers In Prisoners Society. But the same is true that they see the prisoner as a VIP, a Very Important Prisoner! Volunteers focus on ‘their’ prisoner with time and personal contact that continues outside prison, preferably by the same volunteer. This is because of the great value of a good relationship for a successful reintegration. They do not judge. They do not act as lawyers. Their greatest value is being a good listener. If they show that they understand what the prisoner is telling them and they reflect to the prisoner on what they have heard, this can be the first step to change and belief in a better future. Prisoners experience volunteers as people from society whom they have never met before, investing time and energy in their future, for no apparent financial or other benefit to the volunteer. Volunteers receive training and in turn may deliver courses to prisoners. However scientific research on our work with prisoners and their families have shown that trust in volunteers is foundational to prisoners gaining trust that a new future without crime and detention is possible.

Three Elements for NGOs Working with Prisoners

Finally, I want to conclude with three basic requirements for NGOs who use volunteers to be able to offer sustainable and successful services in a prison environment. It is based on my experience with GNd. They are:

1. Focus: The focus should be clear and realistic. Volunteers cannot change the life of a prisoner in ten visits. Neither can they change the prison system in five years. But NGO’s can have a major impact on both if they concentrate on being trustworthy. They can become a “city of refuge”.

2. Policy: An NGO should nurture its volunteers. They are colleagues, and although not paid, they are VIPs: very important persons. They should not be treated as providing ‘cheap alternatives’ to costly staff members. They deserve attention, training, and recognition. This principle should be part of the very DNA of the NGO.

3. Funding: Public and private funding demonstrates that an NGO is independent. It forces it to be in touch with society and to communicate about the value of visiting prisoners. Most of all, a significant amount of private funding keeps the NGO from becoming ‘part of the justice system’. An NGO deals with justice, not as a system but as value. Its volunteers can become people who offer merciful justice (6).


Hans Barendrecht, CEO Gevangenenzorg Nederland


(1) Holland has no jury.
(2) For the scope of this article is focused on imprisonment. A judge has also alternatives as community service and paying a fine.  Imprisonment can be for a temporary term, with a maximum of 30 years. As of October 2020, 34 people have been sentenced to a life sentence.
(4) NJO accreditation for Independent NGO’s on Prison work.
(5) A GNd in-prison labor integration project for example, was evaluated with 220% impact. So €1 of investment in this project, saves society €3,20
(6) The author has written a book with the same title reflecting on 25 years of starting a NGO and developing programs with impact. A free download can be obtained from:

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