Swimming Pools to Remain Open; New Restrictions on Prison and Nursing Home Visits

Reykjavík swimming pool Laugardalslaug

Swimming pools in Reykjavík will remain open for the next two weeks, RÚV reports, even as the number of people who can gather together in one place will go back down to 100 on Friday afternoon.

Pool visitors will be expected to maintain two-metre distancing, sanitizing spray will be made available to all guests, and distance markers will be used in hot pots and steam baths. The opening hours for the pools will remain the same as usual.

Tightened safety measures will be evident elsewhere in the city as well. For one, the Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo will be limiting its intake of daily visitors and will be cancelling all programing and closing a number of exhibits, such as the furred animal and reptile houses.

In order to better protect vulnerable populations from infection, the city has also decided to limit the number of visitors to people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities for the elderly, as well as residential areas and group homes for individuals with disabilities.

Lastly, visits to incarcerated individuals will be disallowed for the present, as will all permissions for prisoners to leave the premises on day passes or for work or study outside of the prison. These restrictions are to be temporary and are intended to reduce the risk of the COVID-19 virus spreading amongst the prison population.

Icelandic Prisons: Good Conditions but Long-Standing Issues

Icelandic prison

In a report published today, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), found that no ill-treatment was reported in Icelandic prisons, police or psychiatric establishments visited and that the material conditions were good or even very good. The Committee is concerned, however that little or no action has been taken on a significant number of long-standing recommendations made by the CPT, some of them dating back to the very first visit to Iceland 26 years ago.

The committee’s long-standing recommendations include addressing the lack of systematic and prompt medical screening of newly arrived prison inmates, including checks for injuries and transmissible diseases. In addition, the CPT noted that drug use continues to be one of the major challenges facing the Icelandic prison system. The CPT calls on the authorities to put in place a comprehensive strategy to support prisoners with drug-related problems, including harm reduction measures.

Furthermore, the CPT called for greater access to psychiatric care and psychological assistance in prisons, as well as the implementation of the long-standing recommendation to improve legal safeguards in cases of involuntary hospitalisation.

The CPT expressed concern that uniformed police officers can be called on to help healthcare staff to control patients with aggressive behaviour. The Committee had recommended stopping this practice as early as its 2012 visit.

The report is based on CPT’s fifth visit to Iceland which occurred from May 17 to 24, 2019. In December 2019, the Icelandic government established an interdisciplinary mental health team to provide prisoners around the country with mental health services. Icelandic authorities are due to respond to the report by May 2020.

Improved Mental Health Services for Prisoners

Hólmsheiði prison Iceland

A specialised, interdisciplinary mental health team has been established to provide prisoners across the country will mental health services. Icelandic Health Insurance and the Capital Area Health Clinics (Heilsugæsla höfuðborgarsvæðisins) co-signed an agreement on the matter today at Hólmsheiði prison. The initiative is a drastic change, as Icelandic prisons have been without a psychiatrist for over five years.

The Prisoners’ Mental Health Team will be staffed by psychiatrists, psychologists, and nurses, and other professionals in the field. The team will work from the capital area but will be mobile, also utilising technology to provide remote services in all of the country’s prisons. The government earmarked ISK 55 million ($450,000/€409,000) for mental health services in prisons this year, and has decided to increase that funding to ISK 70 million ($577,000/€520,000) next year.

Director of the Icelandic Prison Service Paul Winkel expressed his satisfaction that the Ministries of Justice, Health, and Social Affairs had started working together to make progress in prisoners’ services. Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir stated that the effort aims to “bring this service to a point that is not only acceptable, but that we can be proud of.”

Last summer, the Council of Europe’s CPT (more fully the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) visited Icelandic prisons and released a report on their conditions which found mental health services to be lacking.

Anna Gunnhildur Ólafsdóttir, managing director of the Icelandic Mental Health Alliance, has stated that the proportion of prisoners that have mental illnesses is between 50-75%. There has not been a psychiatrist working in Icelandic prisons for over five years, where a staff of four psychologists has been responsible for over 1,000 clients.

Inmate Found Dead in Prison Cell

Litla hraun prison Iceland

A man in his fifties was found dead in his cell at Litla-Hraun prison on Thursday morning, Vísir reports. There is currently no indication that the man’s death occurred under suspicious circumstances. Mbl.is first reported.

“This morning when the cell was opened, the inmate in it was deceased,” reported Director-General of Prison and Probation Administration Páll Winkel. He continued that the police were notified when the man was found and the emergency protocol activated. Nothing, however, indicated that the death had taken place in a questionable way.

According to sources, the man was only serving a short sentence at the prison. His relatives have been notified of his death.

Compensation Should Be Higher for Guðmundur and Geirfinnur Plaintiffs

Ragnar Aðalsteinsson, defense lawyer for Guðjón Skarphéðinsson, one of the defendants in the Guðmundur and Geirfinnur retrial, says that the compensation being offered to his client is too low in comparison with that which has been offered in similar cases.

Guðjón was one of five defendants in a retrial of one of the most notorious criminal cases in Icelandic history. In September, Guðjón and Sævar Cieselski, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson, Kristján Viðar Júlíusson, and Albert Klahn Skaftason were acquitted of the murders of Guðmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson in 1974, for which they were sentenced in 1980.

The case revolved around the disappearance of two men, Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, in 1974. Six people were ultimately convicted of the murders of these two men based on confessions extracted by members of the police force. These confessions are believed to be faulty due to extreme length and intensity of the interrogations. Furthermore, police hever recovered the bodies of the missing men, were not able to confirm the location of the crime scene, and had no actual witnesses or forensic evidence. Murders are few and far between in Iceland and this was particularly true in the 70s. There was tremendous pressure on police authorities to identify and sentence the culprits. It is believed that this pressure led to the extreme methods performed in order to extract confessions. Sævar Ciesielski, who had fought for years to have the case reopened and retried, died in 2011. (Read more about the case here and here.)

Following the acquittal, the Prime Minister issued a formal apology to the five wrongfully convicted defendants and appointed a working group to lead negotiations regarding compensation for the defendants and their families. Seven months have passed since then, but no formal compensation offer has yet been made.

Defense lawyer Ragnar Aðalsteinsson says that the government has informally proposed a ceiling of ISK 600 million [$62.3 million; €55.5] in compensation. In 1983, four suspects who were imprisoned for 105 days in connection with the murders were paid ISK 56 million [$459,921; €409,345] for every day they were wrongfully held in custody in compensation. This is equivalent to ISK 535 million [$4.39 million; €3.91 million] today. The current offer, says Ragnar, is roughly a tenth of that offer “…based on the same charges, in the same prison, at the same time.” Moreover, he says, the current compensation offer does not account for his client’s loss of employment and income at the time.

The defendants were held for up to two years in solitary confinement in addition to the prison terms they were sentenced to. Ragnar says that they should be compensated for at least ISK 390 million [$3.2 million; €2.85] for the two years they spent in solitary confinement.

Ragnar says that the significance of awarding substantial damages goes beyond simply compensating the defendants for their monetary losses at the time of their imprisonment. “High compensation has a range of effects. It is part of the pardon, but also acts as a restraint on police and judicial authorities in the future, to be more careful than they have been in this case, in the hope that something like this won’t repeat itself in the coming years and decades.”

No Prison Psychiatrist in Five Years

Litla hraun prison Iceland

There hasn’t been a psychiatrist working in Icelandic prisons for more than five years, despite that fact that prisoners are guaranteed mental health services by law, RÚV reports. Three individuals incarcerated in Icelandic prisons have committed suicide in the last two years, a fact that is being linked by some to the increasing disarray of prison mental health services.

Three suicides in two years

An Icelandic man just over the age of 40 committed suicide at Litla-Hraun prison last Tuesday. According to DV, the man was sentenced last January to 12 months in prison after repeatedly driving under the influence of drugs. According to the court judgement, the man had previously violated traffic, but not criminal, law.

Anna Gunnhildur Ólafsdóttir, the managing director of Geðhjálp, the Icelandic Mental Health Alliance, says that mental health services in Icelandic prisons are in shambles. “There are four psychologists that have to care for over 1,000 prison clients, and it goes without saying that this is, of course, all too few and there’s a several-week wait for a psychological appointment. There’s no psychiatrist working at Litla-Hraun and in light of the fact that 50-75% of prisoners serving time have mental illnesses, this is a completely unacceptable situation.”

While Anna Gunnhildur was unable to comment on the particular case of the man who recently committed suicide, she affirmed that treatment for incarcerated individuals who struggle with both mental illness and drug addiction is also lacking.

Shortage of mental health services throughout the country

The Ministry of Justice has commented on the current state of mental health services in Icelandic prisons, saying that the human rights of prisoners in Iceland are not guaranteed in this respect as there is a shortage of mental health services throughout the country overall, not just within prisons.

In a radio interview in December, Páll Winkel, the Director-General of Prison and Probation Administration, said that sometimes, prisoners with mental illnesses do not receive parole because there aren’t any accommodations for them outside of prison. Páll pointed to the cases of two prisoners who had committed the same offense: one, who did not struggle with mental illness, received parole, while the other, who did have psychiatric problems, served his full sentence.

“At any given time, there are two to three people in prison who should by rights be in a mental health institution,” remarked Anna Gunnhildur, but for one reason or another, the hospital has often not been confident in admitting seriously ill prisoners in spite of the completely clear legal basis in that regard.”