The poor are more heavily penalized than the rich: an example out of practice.
Last year I was locked up three days in a police cell because of an unpaid 150 euro fine.
Judges sentence people to a fine because, as they say, it is the lightest possible punishment. Community service is seen as heavier, and a prison sentence – “Only if you have committed a severe crime.
Prison, only for severe criminals? Well … that depends on your income. Because, there are people who cannot pay their fines. Really? Really. And who cannot pull his wallet, ends up in a cell.
The following scenario can then come to play:
All of a sudden, around dinnertime, the police rings your at door – loud and persisting. When you open the door, they attack you with the words: “Pay or come with us!” Let’s suppose you can’t pay….
You get a few minutes to arrange someone who can take care of your children and your pets. You turn off the gas, grab some clean underwear and in no time you’ll find yourself an arrestee in a police station.
After a search they lock you up in a holding cell – a wooden bench, no toilet. Then nothing happens. You wait, and wait. An experienced prisoner knows, usually after an hour or so, how to persuade a warden to bring you to a “real” cell. An inexperienced arrestee can wait easily six hours in such a holding cell.
But sooner or later there you are in a police cell, measuring two by two meters. In my case: no window, no radio, television or clock. The toilet, no self service – only to be flushed by staff. Your place to stay for the next few days: a concrete box with artificial light.
You ‘supervisor’ checks if the walls of the cell are already scratched by your predecessors – everything you would want to add to the scratches yourself is damage, and you will have to pay for it. Literary.
You’ll find typed ‘house rules’. You can read that you’re not given the opportunity to make a phone call, unless to your lawyer. You will periodically get something to eat and drink and 2 times a day you can take a smoke outside – if it suits the guards. Who insults or physically touches personnel, will be reported to the police. (Must be easy since you are already at a police station). If you behave properly, you will be offered something to read.
I had brought my own books, so those three days inside I spent reading, thinking and waiting.
The nights were a bit difficult. There is always a lot of noise during the nights, made by angry or ill prisoners. The first night the artificial light was somewhat dimmed, but it was still very bright. The next night the neon tube went out, but regularly staff put on the light at full strength, to make sure you’re still alive. Willfully inflicted sleep deprivation, supposedly for your own safety.
And then you’ll get sometimes belittled, some personnel is eager for a confrontation, the rude guys dominate. But hey, that’s how a ‘detainee carer’ learns to deal with criminals. It must be clear who is boss – guards can insult prisoners, but not vice versa, with reference to the ‘house rules’: ‘Who insults or physically touches personnel, will be reported to the police’.
Misery in the yard
While smoking in the small yard at the rooftop, I met two mothers of small children, who also were there because of fines. They suffered a lot, had a terrible time at the police station, because they were worried sick about their children, since they, the mothers, were not at home to take care of them.
One mother had two children, one of nine years old and a two months old baby. She had to be in jail for fifteen days. She had never been locked up before and was really desperate. Her baby was born by cesarean section, her wound had still not healed. The baby had undergone surgery for digestive problems, she had to breastfeed it. This had now rudely come to an end. Her breasts were hurting, and she worried about how the baby would drink now. She was allowed to call home, her mother had told her that the baby could not drink bottle milk and was throwing up.
Her other child was in shock because the police took away his mother with a lot of fuss, he now was afraid that he would never see his mother again.
The mother was very worried that her children would be taken away from her – you never know. She told me she was almost all of the time crying in the cell and could not sleep at night.
All this misery because of a traffic ticket she could not pay. Problematic pregnancy, childbirth, sick child – that costs money. A hastily arranged lawyer tried to get the fine converted into a community sentence, but that was not honored.
Traffic fines fall under the head of Wet Mulder (Mulder Law) – no criminal law, but administrative law. You will be taken hostage for a certain period, but after release you still have to pay that fine. So, as long as you can’t pay, you will be taken hostage again and again.
The other mother had a 300 euro fine, that she, like me, could ‘sit out’, as we say – could serve. She too had little children and was constantly sick, because she was in the beginning of a new pregnancy. She could not keep her food in and had to throw up from time to time. The yard was covered with ice, they had not allowed her to bring her shoes in the cell, so she was shivering in the yard, wearing socks and thin blue plastic bags at her feet.
She had already been imprisoned before. She said: “If I have to steal to give my children something to eat, I’ll do that! Only selling my body, I do not. But hey, once you’ve been to jail, you sink deeper and deeper into poverty. Those who have been in prison, keep coming back in prison.”
I stayed those days at the police station, the two women were brought to a prison.
These women had a really tough time, with potentially serious consequences afterwards. And what was it all about? It was about small amounts of money, money that most people can easily pay. Pocket money for the rich. The rich, at least as criminal as the poor, can spare themselves a miserable time in a cell. They don’t have to consider whether they are going to steal or prostitute themselves. The rich don’t get disciplined, like what happens when you are locked up. For example by putting you for 6 hours in a holding cell – seemingly without reason. Or IS there a reason? Yes there is: it is to get a poor person like you to realize that you have nothing to expect, that you’ll pay for the fact that you do not have enough money to pay fines, that you will loose your freedom now and then. You will be dependent on the whims of the staff, you should try be nice to them, otherwise the answer to everything you ask for will be: “No”, or “Later” – which in practice amounts to the same.
To imprison people for the slightest thing is seen as ‘normal’. You do not even have to break the law at all. Just look at undocumented people, who are imprisoned without having done anything. Actually, they are held hostage by the State – administrative hostage, compare Mulder Law.
The impact of incarceration on people, the effects of confinement, the reasons why people break laws – all that is no longer an issue.
Not one political party here in the Netherlands cares about that. Why? Because there is no political gain to be achieved. All parties, from right to left, align themselves with Fred Teeven, state secretary of the Ministry of Justice, AKA ‘The Crimefighter’: ‘tough on crime’ – that’s how you win votes. Imprison more people and longer, create minimum sentences, make more things punishable,, make parole difficult to get or abolish it all together, criminalize illegality … and this is but a random selection from the announced new measures.
More and more Dutch people are struggling to pay their bills. One out of six families has debts they cannot pay. More and more people are thrown out of their houses because they can’t pay the rent. Debt counseling is a process where you have to survive by 50 euro per week – three years.
Zero-hour contracts, obliged to work for free while you are on benefits, job loss … Could there possibly be a link to the fact that people can not make ends meet? Cannot pay their fines, be forced to violate the law? The politics denies any form of liability whatsoever. It’s your own fault, your own responsibility, is the Leitmotif.
The prisons of the future will be over crowded. Soon, two human beings in a cell of 10 square meters will be standard. The final bill will be paid by those who are in prison and their families.
The Right to Freedom only exists for people who own property. They must be protected against the dispossessed. Therefore, state repression and thus the institute prison is crucial for the present society. In these times where banks and big companies created “crisis”, it is demanded that your life is dedicated to making profits out of others.
Man does not count, only profit. Protest and rebellion are suppressed and answered with repression.
Who does not work shall not eat, shall not live; so laws will be violated, and prison is destiny. The security of the Netherlands must be guaranteed.
Was the Netherlands safer during the days in which these two women and me were locked up? Would it?