Science - November 18, 2004

Vitamin pill trial against aggression

A big experiment will start soon in twelve Dutch prisons, in which prisoners will receive nutritional supplements. The researchers, from Wageningen and Nijmegen, hope that this will reduce aggression in prisons and that fewer will return to their criminal ways after their release.

The researchers are not yet sure exactly what form the experiment will take, but it will start at the beginning of 2005 and finish towards the end of the same year. The sub-department of Human Nutrition organised a mini-symposium on the subject last week, inviting policy workers from the National Agency of Correctional Institutions (DJI) to exchange ideas with researchers from Wageningen, Nijmegen and RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment).

The experiment was devised after questions were posed in the Dutch parliament to the minister of justice Piet Hein Donner, following the publication of a book by the Dutch vitamin guru Gert Schuitemaker Honger naar geweld (Hungry for violence). In the book Schuitemaker claims that there is a link between nutrition and violent behaviour. One of the examples he cites for his reasoning is an experiment carried out by Professor Bernard Gesch of Oxford University in British prisons. Cases of flouting the rules among prisoners given extra vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fatty acids declined by a quarter, in particular outbreaks of violence.

‘At first we were sceptical,’ said Ap Zaalberg from DJI. ‘But as things progressed we became more excited. If we can improve things in such a simple way it would be wonderful.’ He wonders, however, if the term ‘correctional services’ will then be the right one. ‘Are we really correcting?’ If the experiment is a success it will probably be followed up, continued Zaalberg. ‘I am curious as to whether supplements can reduce recidivism.’

Bernard Gesch was also present at the mini-symposium. The professor emphasised that the supplements do not have side effects. ‘The only complaints we received during the experiment were from the guards,’ he said. ‘They noticed that they started to put on weight, because it was so much quieter in the prisons. They got less action.’ / WK

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