hunger- and workstrikes in the judicial complex Willem II

marz 1995


Early January '96, imprisoned illegal foreigners and refugees staged hunger- and workstrikes in the judicial complex Willem II in Tilburg.

In the general confusion of terms of the Ministry of Justice, it is also called Penal Institution, Remand Prison and not to forget: 'detention without conflicts'.
The strikes were aimed at the detention itself, the long terms of imprisonment, the under-payment of work and the poor work- and livingconditions. In the end of '95 there were two out- break attempts: a number of detainees managed to flee, others were arrested again. Because of these outbreaks the security was intensified, which also increased the tension inside.

Long terms of detention

The long terms of detention are a big problem, many refugees don't even have a lawyer. If a lawyer requests the lifting of detention, usually the Ministry of Justice wins the case, without going through a lot of trouble. Usually it is enough to state that they are going to make an appointment with an embassy. The illegal can then be held again, for a couple of months, it's that easy.
According to directions of the Ministry, detention is used to put diplomatic pressure on countries of origin to take back their citizens, especially with technically difficult to expulse illegal foreigners. This is a kind of hostage-taking or trading with people, and no longer detention with sight on expulsion, but is done to force countries of origin to take back their citizens, even if they don't have any official papers.

Imprisoning innocent people is creating problems

The strikes are not isolated actions, but a long standing practice in prisons where innocent people are locked up like Schiphol-east, Remand Prison (HvB) Schutterswei, the border- jail (Grenshospitium), HvB Nieuwersluis, HvB Zwolle and ot- hers.
Freedom is a worthy good, a ground right, a human right and much more. According to governor F”llings of Willem II hunger- strikes take place every day! Instead of taking this kind of protest seriously (which should be able in this 'civilised' world ...), his reaction is a sinister one: Internally strong repressive measures are taken, like: placing strikers in isolation-cells, transfers to other prisons (the merry-go- round-system, especially used for supposed leaders), but also ever changing and stricter house-rules, like: separate walks outside and suddenly no sports. In addition to that strikers got regular visits from warders, asking them about the strike, probably in order to break it. Specially the work-strike caused an economic problem since delivered goods for producti- on had to be returned.
So internally hard sanctions had been taken, externally the strikes were ignored. They put on a show that everything was in normal order. 'Besides they are all criminals, so what are those outside critics nagging about?' The inmates have been declared outlaws, so the governor and the Ministry can do and say whatever they want. That is the only way in which the Ministry can save itself from the self created problems of imprisoning innocent people.

The Governor speaks out ...

- Governor F”llings claims that the goal of the hungerstrikes is to frustrate expulsion, because on medical grounds a weakened person can't be deported.
In reality a hungerstrike is one of the few means of protest that are possible, against detention and the long terms of it. Besides that, it is a form of resistance with which your voice can be heard outside.
- About the workstrike he says that it was organised by those 'thugs' from the 'Grenshospitium', because there they get a weekly allowance whereas in the Willem II they have to work for it.
In reality the prisoners are underpaid for the work they do. It is hypocritical that illegals and refugees are not allowed to work in society and in prison they are, but are underpaid. The pocketmoney they earn can hardly be called a wage, it is a little more than 1 guilder per hour.
The work itself is not that pleasant. Some refugees staged a strike last summer because their lungs got affected. Some work, which would normally be done with protective clothing, is, in Willem II, done without. 'Laborious or Active deten- tion' is the way this is called.
To work means that you, as if it were, sign a contract for five days a week. They have to be able to count on you, because the work goes on. The companytrucks are coming and going to transport the production. The work that is accepted has to be delivered. If you don't want to work, they put a lot of pressure on you. You are being non-cooperative.
- The governor also claims that, since strikes occur every day, they are not worth making a fuss over. A typical example of a turn about of reasoning. One would say that the more signals you get, it is all the more reason to take them seri- ously. But the Ministry of Justice and the management see, as usual, only the short term strategy. They ignore signals rather than taking them serious. In this way they create a high-voltage tension in a prison like the Willem II. And this, to state it once more, while they called it 'detention without conflicts' in their propagandaspeeches at the opening on the 27th of April 1994, and still do.

The voice of the illegal through the walls

Locking up innocent people, for example because they stayed illegally in the Netherlands, has got as a response a call for freedom. The tension mounts: attempts to break out, hunger- and workstrikes and attempts to escape by suicide. That is what we also saw, documented and published about in the bor- der-jail (Grenshospitium). The Ministry of Justice had been warned. But they keep on blundering by ignoring the problem. They build ever more cells (soon there will be extra in Alphen aan de Rijn, Zoetermeer, Zwolle o.a.) and increasingly get stuck in playing some form of short term strategy. Of course there is a lot more work involved: more police-officers, more wardens, more infrastructure like the prisoncatering. In this way the 'Laborious detention' contributes to our economy, the illegals work for close to nothing and the companies make good money.
The way the situation develops in the Willem II is identical as in, for example, the border-prison. Lack of control on the way refugees and illegal foreigners are treated make it poss- ible to deny them every right. 'Outsiders' have to try and hear their voices and be a channel of communication for them.

The voice of illegals transformed in protest outside

In relation to that we tried to get information from inside during the time of the strike. All contact with prisoners had been blocked now for some time. Information got out bit by bit. Together with the Vuurdoop, visits- and actiongroup in Tilburg, we wrote a press-release. The Vuurdoop held a demon- stration in which we took part, they also started a protest- card campaign. In the mean time the Ministry of Justice and the management worked to conceal the true story of the protest inside and acted towards the press as if nothing was going on. The management wrote a letter to the strikers promising the improvement of the food, apparently they also thought that the quality could be better, or it was a sop. This poor quality of prisonfood we also noticed in the border-jail, but what do you expect from Dutch cheapest meals. A letter from the Vuurdoop to the staff was followed by a letter from the management forbidding staffmembers to speak out. We tried, together with the Vuurdoop, to inform the outside world about the strikes. They lasted for some weeks.


To let the voice of the prisoners to be heard about their grievances, we drew up a plan to let them be visited by a delegation. For this reason we asked people from different fields of work: human rights, judicial, medical and journal- ists. We found them willing to look at the plan. The intention is to come to an independent inquest in to the cause of the strikes. The vision of the management has been heard often enough. We think that it is time the people concerned be heard.
On the 27th of April 1994 the Willem II was opened, according to the Ministry of Justice, it would be a coping-stone of the Aliens policy. It would fit in the program CAP '96, concerning the building of cells: a big prison for illegals with a maximum capacity of 400 inmates. The groupcells for 8 persons were 'something new', characteristic for Willem II (and cheap of course, with little privacy). These were real nice sales- talks, after less than a year containers were placed to be able to place more prisoners in one person cells. It concerned 40 cells extra. A plan has been submitted to build an extra 200 cells.
The terms of detention would be 35 to 40 days, according to the Ministry of Justice at the start of Willem II. Terms of 7, even 9, months are no exception now. According to the Ministry of Justice the illegal him-/herself is to blame or the lawyer because they keep on starting legal procedures. After a couple of months the management transfers long-term prisoners to the border-jail.
The Ministry of Justice presented Willem II as: "detention without conflicts" (although they reckon with the worst). in practice it is all tension and conflict. The Ministry turns a blind eye to it. At the same time they easily claim that all problems are created by the illegal foreigners and that they are criminals.

Keep them busy

"For the management, offering a purposeful day is the only way in which they can keep control of the prison. Purely out of preservation of the lives of the staffmembers". This is what a staffmember stated. And:" By keeping them busy constantly we try to draw off their energy in a way we can control." (Bra- bants Dagblad, sept. '95).
In May the governor said in Trouw, a national newspaper, that: "violence occurs every day in the complex, because there are some big timers here." These kind of suggestive remarks can be aired by the governor without raising a single word of doubt. About the complex in Ter Apel, Nawijn and the rest of the management of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) declared also that people will be held "who have done some- thing out of order." This is a pure criminalisation of out- lawed illegal foreigners and refugees.
In the border-jail in Amsterdam South-East, which is now a prison for illegals, hungerstrikes, demonstrations, inmates meetings, arson, revolts and manifestations outside the prison also occurred. After unrest prisoners were transferred to prisons with an even stricter regime, like Nieuwersluis, after which once even a groupexpulsion took place. After years of detention of foreigners there is experience enough to conclude that it is useless and creates an enormous amount of suffering for illegal foreigners. It is only there to serve as deterrence.

Review of forms of resistance against detention in Willem II

* In May '94, shortly after the opening, end of april, attempted outbreaks, 3 people escaped.
* Returning complaints against the poor quality of the prison- food. If you want to buy extra food from the prisonstore, you can fill in a form once a week. Prices are quit high. If you don't work or don't have family or friends who put money on your account it is too expensive.
* Criticism towards the medical staff, who don't take com- plaints serious and give an aspirin for everything.
* People who try to commit suicide, main themselves, cut their wrists. The standard reaction of the management is to pre- scribe the isolationcell. Not for one hour, but a standard term of one or two weeks.
* On the slightest reason, like not following an order or an argument, one is also thrown in an isolationcell. In isolation (and seclusion) there is an even stricter regime: hardly any (sometimes no) walks, sports, shower, visitors. No activities or work. Many detainees end up in isolation once or more.
* Hungerstrikes, both individually as in groups. In the summer of '95 a number of Algerians staged a hungerstrike. They were placed in isolation. To the outside world this was denied.
* Arson in cells, October '95. According to the management fires appear regularly. Two court cases for arson, one was acquitted, the other heavily punished.
* Refusal of work, both individually as in large groups, because work is underpaid and conditions are bad. Also general protest against detention.