Quarter of Prisoners Serve Sentence Outside Prison Walls Skip to content

Quarter of Prisoners Serve Sentence Outside Prison Walls

By Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson

Photo: Golli. Sun shines on a bench in Hólmsheiði prison.

Above: Sun shines on bench inside the Hólmsheiði prison walls. Photo: Golli

Just under a quarter of Icelandic prisoners served their sentences outside prison walls in the last year, Vísir reports. The ratio of individuals serving their sentences outside the prison walls has increased steadily in recent years. Different have measures have been introduced as alternatives to serving a prison sentence within the prison walls. These include measures such as electronic surveillance of prisoners as well as community service.

“In our eyes, it is important to imprison individuals for as short a time as possible inside closed prisons, and that prisoners go to an open prison from there. Then to a halfway house and finally prisoners complete their sentence at their home with an ankle bracelet,” Páll Winkel, director of the Icelandic Prison Service, stated. Furthermore, Páll stated that this approach increases the chances of an individual adjusting to society slowly but surely and that they can find their footing after their sentence is completed.

Waiting list finally shortens

In spite of these changes, the number of individuals waiting to serve their sentence has increased steadily on the Icelandic Prison Service summons list. The waiting list nearly doubled between 2010 and 2017, from 300 individuals to 570. In 2018, the waiting list was reduced for the first time in a decade as there were 536 individuals on the list, waiting to serve their sentence.

Even though prison spaces have increased since the new prison on Hólmsheiði was put into use, it does not tell the whole story. According to Páll, the Icelandic Prison Service lost 24 prison spaces in total when two Reykjavík area prisons shut down, Hegningarhúsið on Skólavörðustígur and the women’s prison in Kópavogur. There are 56 prison spaces in the new prison in Hólmsheiði, but it is up to funding how many of the available prison spaces can be put into use. Páll states the Hólmsheiði prison is expected to be put into full use this year.


Prison cell in Iceland’s newest prison, Hólmsheiði, opened in 2016. Photo: Golli.

Increase in custody

The number of individuals placed in custody each day has increased by 45% in the last four years. It has gone from 17,5 individuals in custody per day in 2015, to 25,7 per day on average in 2018. Alda Hrönn Jónsdóttir from the South Iceland Police believes it is connected to special investigations into organized crime. “I would believe that this is connected to specific cases, they have hit us hard the last two years and become ever more difficult and complicated,” Alda stated. She notes, however, that this is speculation based on her experience.

The number of individuals in custody had been steady from 2008, and was most often between 15 to 20 individuals per day. The number went up to 24,1 per day in 2017 and stood at 25,7 in 2018. Alda does not believe this increase can be connected to an increased emphasis on domestic violence and sexual offences, even though there may be some increase in those cases. An emphasis was placed on those offences a couple of years before the increase in custody numbers.

However, the number of individuals in solitary confinement when in custody has decreased steadily in the past decade. The number is down from close to 30% in 2008 to just over 10% in 2018.

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