From very different starting-points, the prison systems in England and Wales and the Netherlands are in some ways moving closer together as they wrestle with the common problems of increasing numbers of prisoners, frequently serving longer sentences for serious offences; increasing calls to get tough with crime, and increasing racism and drug abuse within the prisons.
The Dutch system has not been faced with the external scrutiny and criticism to which the English system is regularly subject. This is no doubt due first and foremost to the fact that the Dutch system has been a much more civilized one than the English, and prisoners have had less to complain about. Secondly, a willingness and ability at the national level to ensure conformity of rules and decisions with international obligations such as those under the European Convention on Human Rights have obviated the need for prisoners to go to Strasbourg to seek redress. Thirdly, confidence in the merits of one's own system enables ideas for reform to be developed without constant reference to what is happening elsewhere, although it can also lead to an unwillingness to contemplate that someone else might have some answers too.
The English prison system has had no such luxuries. It has faced a barrage of criticism, and a succession of 'crises' for over a decade, with riots and industrial action punctuated by official inquiries into their causes. Throughout this time, prisoners have used the domestic courts and the European Convention organs to seek individual remedies while government and commentators have pondered how the system itself could be improved. Failure to take on board within domestic law the obligations of the European Convention has resulted in much greater international publicity of the failure of the prison system to safeguard prisoners' human rights, but progress has been slow where questions of resources and conditions are concerned. For the meantime, prisoners, prison staff, and prison reformers in England and Wales continue to look longingly across the Channel to what, from this distance and through the mist, appears a much more successful approach to imprisonment as a penal measure at the end of the twentieth century.