The proportion of prisoners in the Netherlands and Croatia have seen the biggest falls in recent years, data shows.
Both countries say drops of 28 percent between 2008-2015, the largest decrease in the European Union.
In the Netherlands there were 64.2 prisoners per 100,000 of its populace in 2015, compared with 79.07 in Croatia.
The Dutch, whose falling numbers have seen them sell off their jails (see below), have one of the lowest figures in the EU.
Only Denmark, Sweden and Finland have smaller proportions.
Proportionally, Lithuania has the biggest number of prisoners in the EU, with 251 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants.
Overall, 18 countries saw drops in their prisoner proportions between 2008-2015, with 10 seeing rises.
Of those registering increases, Portugal, Slovakia and Hungary had the biggest.
How the Dutch are breathing fresh life into their surplus jails
Prisons across the Netherlands are being closed down as plunging crime levels make them surplus to requirements.
Some, like Breda jail in the south of the country, have been refurbished and put to good use.
Built back in 1886, its majestic and luminous dome now provides shelter for entrepreneurs and start-ups.
These refurbishments have been made possible by falling crime levels and subsequent drops in prisoner numbers.
Recorded crime fell 25 percent in the eight years to 2016, according to the Dutch Central Statistics Bureau.
It’s seen prisoner numbers fall too, from 89 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, to just 64.20 in 2015.
From lock-up to start-ups
Breda’s main architectural feature, its dome, is a pointer to its panopticon past, a design that allowed all the prisoners to be observed from one vantage point.
These days its cells doors are wide open and their inhabitants can come and go as they please.
VPS, Vacant Property (@vacantproperty1) December 6, 2016
More than 90 entrepreneurs work in the prison, among them Miguel de Waard, co-founder of the start-up 3D images Red Panda VR.
“We instantly fell in love with this office: the high ceiling, the large windows,” said the entrepreneur. “And it’s right in the centre of town.
“Every time we enter the dome or the women’s prison, it’s rather dark, there’s a lot of history, it feels,” he adds.
Keeping some historical perspective
But Breda’s prison past is not entirely confined to the dustbin of history.
On certain evenings it opens its doors to Prison Escape, an ‘epic interactive gaming experience’ that sees participants try to find their way out of the complex.
As if escaping the prison in Rotterdam was not hard enough. Prison Escape moved to a new location in Breda which is absolutely amazing pic.twitter.com/UFIlrtEAzO— Julien 🇳🇱 (@Hollandje97) January 12, 2017
But it’s only short-lived, after the game, the complex returns to its new role.
Mandy Jak is communications and marketing consultant at VPS, a property managing company that was entrusted with the prison in 2016.
“It took us a month to get the first companies,” said Jak. “We had to keep an eye on the keys: what doors open and close, how can people escape in an emergency, how to prevent intruders from entering?”
The prison, which played host to four German World War II criminals, is one of 27 Dutch institutions deemed surplus to requirements since 2014.
Six of them were sold for a total income of 20.7 million euros, helped by falling rates of recorded crime.
“Judges condemn differently, no more lightly, but quite differently, with labor pains, electronic bracelets and specialised clinics,” said Anneloes van Boxtel, real estate project director at the Netherlands’ Interior Ministry.