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From the lecture hall: in conversation with an inmate

Students stream into the lecture hall, handing in their mobile phones at the door. Once everyone’s seated, silence descends and all eyes turn to the large screen at the front of the lecture hall. A live connection has been set up with the prison where Marco is a long-term inmate. Today, the students will be talking with him.

To conclude the third-year course on ‘Daders’ (Offenders), part of the Criminology degree programme, lecturer Roosmarijn van Es has organised this session together with Jennifer Doekhie. After all, as Doekhie remarks, ‘How can you be a good criminologist if you have no understanding of the person on the other side?’

Long-term imprisonment doesn’t help you

At first, the students are rather hesitant to ask questions, but they soon fire away: ‘Do you think differently about imprisonment now you’re a prisoner yourself?’ ‘What impact does imprisonment have on you mentally?’ Marco takes his time to answer all the questions. He explains that he’s seen the prison change a lot since he started his sentence. ‘There have been a lot of cutbacks in facilities. There used to be an evening programme, but that’s more or less gone now.’ He says that if you’re a long-term inmate, the mental impact diminishes: ‘First, all you can think of is how much time you still have to do, but as time goes by you don’t think about that anymore – it just becomes a way of life.’

‘You should think carefully about why a person turns to crime’

One student asks if there’s then any point in longer prison sentences, which is something politicians often call for. What does Marco think about that? ‘I’ve been in prison for a long time now, and I can’t say it’s helped me at all. After a while, it doesn’t feel like a punishment any more. You get used to the situation, but you don’t learn anything from it.’

Targeted therapy as an alternative

Marco is asked what he thinks would be a good alternative. ‘You should think carefully about why a person turns to crime. Will the punishment imposed on them have any effect? If you ask me, simply locking somebody up won’t do any good. That doesn’t help anyone. You have to help both society and the offender. I was able to get targeted therapy and it’s really changed me and my behaviour.’

‘I thought he’d be quite hostile. But he was actually just a very friendly, normal man.’

Finally, the students asked Marco if he had any tips for when they start out in the profession: ‘It’s important when you’re faced with sentencing a person to ask yourself: “Why would someone do something like this? And will the sentence actually help?”’

The person behind the crime

When the call ends, the lecture hall goes quiet again. So, what did the students think of their encounter with the inmate? One student says: ‘Perhaps it’s rather a cliché, but I thought he’d be quite hostile. But he was actually just a very friendly, normal man.’


The course on ‘Daders’ (Offenders) teaches first-year Criminology students about offenders and the various types of crime – how it originates, responses to it and the consequences. It explores what exactly defines an offender, how perceptions contribute to those definitions, theories that can explain offenders’ actions and how we respond to crime and its consequences for inmates.

Van Es adds: ‘Education focuses mainly on theory. After a few years, students will enter the profession and some will have contact with inmates or at least be involved in policy. For these reasons, it’s important that students come into contact with these people early on in their studies and learn more about the person behind the crime and how the theory is reflected in practice.’

Learning behind bars

This guest lecture with an inmate is a part of the innovative Comenius Senior Project led by Joni Reef, Jennifer Doekhie and Anouk den Besten: Learning behind bars. Funded by the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research (NRO), the course allows students to explore their existing frames of reference in exchanges with inmates. This enables students to learn about legal rights, legal systems and how to view something ‘from the criminal’s perspective’.

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