In Focus: Prisons in Iceland

litla hraun prison iceland

On September 25, 2023, Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir announced a series of reforms to Iceland’s prisons. They included increasing the number of rooms in women’s prison Sogn from 21 to 35 and revisions to the Enforcement Act. The biggest news, however, was that the country’s largest prison, Litla-Hraun, would be replaced with new facilities, projected […]

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New Prison to Replace Litla-Hraun

prison

A new prison will be built to replace the largest prison in Iceland, Litla-Hraun, RÚV reports. Construction of the new facilities is expected to cost ISK 7 billion [$51.2 million, €48.1 million]. In the coming months, the number of rooms in women’s prison Sogn will also be increased from 21 to 35.

Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir announced major prison reforms at a press conference at Litla-Hraun this morning. They include not only the construction of a new prison but also an increase in the number of cells, and a revision of the Enforcement Act.

New prison pending and repairs to Litla-Hraun

A detailed inspection of the facilities at Litla-Hraun revealed that it would be cheaper to build a new prison than to make the necessary repairs to Litla-Hraun. A new prison will be built on state-owned land to the east of the current Litla-Hraun facilities.

According to Guðrún, however, Litla-Hraun will not be shut down, “but the days of Litla-Hraun as we know them today are over, fortunately, I would say.” ISK 2 billion [$14.6 million, €] has been secured from the state treasury to repair the current facilities. It is not clear whether some or all of the current facilities will be torn down.

Women face worse conditions in prison

A recent report concluded that women’s conditions in Icelandic prisons were worse than men’s. With the expansion of Sogn, their situation will be improved, the Minister of Justice stated. The expansion at Sogn is expected to cost ISK 350 million [$2.6 million, €2.4 million].

Preparations to begin immediately

Preparations for the construction of a new prison will begin immediately, the Minister stated. “Now I trust the Government Property Agency to resolve everything quickly and well.” Emphasis will be placed on building a modern prison that ensures the safety of both prisoners and staff, and not least on improving the conditions of families, especially children.

Litla-Hraun will continue to be solely a prison for men. Guðrún stated that there are more women in prison in Iceland than ever before, the majority serving at Hólmsheiði. However, the decision has been made to increase the number of rooms at Sogn, an open prison for women, rather than Hólmsheiði, a closed detention centre like Litla-Hraun.

Minister of Justice Calls for Increased Funding to Prison System

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

Minister of Justice, Jón Gunnarsson, has stated the need for further public funding of the prison system. Vísir reports.

According to the minister, increased public support would allow Icelandic prisons to take further steps towards a rehabilitation policy. Such a rehabilitation policy would not just increase resources in the prison system, but also increase the available resources to former inmates once their sentences have ended.

Read more: Over 60 Prison Sentences Expired Due to Lack of Cell Space

The minister’s suggestions follow recent calls by experts for a more rehabilitative prison system which emphasizes re-integrating inmates into society through work and education programmes.

In recent statements to Vísir, the minister acknowledges that the issue is not new and that the situation has been unsatisfactory for years.

“We’ve been having this conversation for some time, and we have taken some measures that have helped significantly, but we must do better,” stated Jón Gunnarsson, adding that there must be cooperation between ministries to improve the situation of mentally ill inmates. “Prisoners have the right to healthcare like other citizens. There are far too many examples of people falling through the cracks of the healthcare system and the prison authorities. We need to find solutions for this.”

Read more: Prison Guards to Receive Stab-Resistant Vests

The minister likewise called for greater support in finding job placement for former inmates.

Although Iceland has made some advances in these fields, Jón reiterated the need to prioritize rehabilitation and allow inmates to contribute to society.

Read more: Mass Arrests Put Pressure on Already-Strained Prison System

“I am concerned that people are not being given adequate resources to provide them with appropriate treatment, and prison authorities are even keeping people longer than they are supposed to be in prison because they are considered a danger to their environment when they leave. This can create the expectation that when they leave prison, they may even immediately commit serious crimes. So, we need to improve in these areas,” says Jón.

He has additionally stated that it is necessary to improve the conditions of prison guards to enable them to deal better with prisoners’ needs, both in terms of mental health and rehabilitation.

 

Over 60 Prison Sentences Expired Due to Lack of Cell Space

Roughly sixty prison sentences have expired over the past three years owing to shortage of prison cells, RÚV reports. At a session before Parliament yesterday, members of the opposition expressed concern over the state of the country’s prison system.

Deterrance rendered ineffective

Yesterday, Helga Vala Helgadóttir, MP for the Social Democratic Alliance, opened the discussion on prison affairs before Parliament. Roughly 300 people, of which 279 men, are on prison wait lists. According to Helga Vala, the state of affairs is unacceptable, both for victims and perpetrators:

“The aim of legislation on the enforcement of sentences is that sentences be served safely and efficiently in order to deter, whether by particular or general means, criminal offences; however, such a thing can hardly be effective when prisoners cannot begin serving their sentences and when victims must watch perpetrators walk the streets as if they had done nothing wrong. Furthermore, convicted individuals cannot begin to rebuild their lives or must simply trust that their prison sentences expire so that they don’t need to serve time. These are terrible messages to send to society,” Helga Vala stated.

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Chair of the Centre Party, echoed Helga’s sentiments:

“Although we sometimes use the phrase human-rights violation rather freely, I would categorise it in these terms: that someone has been sentenced – with all the subsequent consequences on the individual – but must wait in uncertainty as to when that sentence begins,” Sigmundur remarked.

Sixty-four prison sentences expired since beginning of 2020

As noted by RÚV, since the start of 2020, 64 prison sentences have expired owing to a shortage of cell space. The COVID pandemic played a significant role but also a lack of government funding. The prison system will receive an increase of ISK 250 million ($1.8 million / €1.7 million) according to a bill to amend next year’s budget as proposed by the Minister of Finance.

Just Minister Jón Gunnar states that this will completely alter the state of affairs:

“One must also consider what the prison authorities are dealing with, namely longer sentences, a greater number of sentences, and a significant increase in the number of individuals being kept in police custody, which wasn’t entirely expected, and which has served to complicate matters. A working group was appointed to review operations and to offer proposals on how to shorten waiting lists. They’re working on it, and once that work is finished, we’ll have a foundation from which to increase the budget and the number of prison guards, and also to operate our prisons more efficiently. This will, of course, be of great help,” Jón stated.

Prison Guards to Receive Stab-Resistant Vests, Possibly Tasers

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

The Minister of Justice will answer the call from prison guards regarding increased training and protective equipment, Mbl.is reports. The Director General of Prison and Probation Administration notes a worrying trend of violence and weapons use within Icelandic prisons.

Use of weapons on the rise in prisons

As noted in an article published on Mbl.is yesterday morning, violence and weapons use among Icelandic prisoners have greatly increased over the past years. In light of this trend, prison guards have called for better protective equipment, stab-resistant vests, and, in some instances, access to tasers.

Páll Winkel, Director General of Prison and Probation Administration, told Mbl.is that the prison system was facing a “new reality,” with weapons now being confiscated from cells and common areas on a regular basis.

“This was almost unheard of, a couple of years ago. It’s my responsibility, first and foremost, to ensure the safety of my employees. We’re not enthusiastic about carrying weapons within our prisons, but we obviously need to reassess our protocols. And we may need to reconsider how we interact with certain groups of inmates, i.e. those who create and carry makeshift weapons,” Páll stated, adding that these weapons were improvised from shards of plexiglass, saw-blades, screwdrivers, screws, and nails.

Prison guard speaks out

Speaking to Vísir.is yesterday, prison guard Sigurður Rúnar Hafliðason stated that he’d experienced these trends first-hand: “We’ve got this much tougher, more violent core of prisoners, who are also abusing drugs to a greater extent. And so there’s a big difference in how we’re managing prisoners today, compared to when I was starting.”

As noted by the article, three serious assaults have been perpetrated against prison guards this year. According to Sigurður, the younger generation of prisoners commonly carries knives and post-traumatic stress has increased among prison guards.

Sigurður Rúnar doesn’t necessarily believe that tasers are necessary, arguing that stab-resistant vests and improved training is vital. “We need to improve safety … we need training so that people feel safe while they’re at work.” Mass arrests and budgetary constraints have also put pressure on an already strained system.

Minister of Justice to “answer the call”

In an article published in Morgunblaðið this morning, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated that the safety of prison guards and police officers was “a priority.”

“What’s happening inside prison walls reflects broader trends within our society,” Jón remarked. “I’ve had extensive conversations with the prison authorities, and it’s clear that we must respond on many different levels.”

According to Jón, this response will, among other things, include stab-resistant vests. The Ministry is also considering equipping prison guards with tasers.

“We’ve repeatedly witnessed serious incidents within the country’s prisons. It’s clear that it’s necessary to equip our people in such a way that their safety is ensured at their places of employment. And we do that by providing better protective equipment. Additionally, we need to consider structural organisation; we can’t allow things to develop in such a manner within our prisons.”

Physical altercations involving knives have been in the news lately, with a knife attack at the Bankastræti Club nightclub last weekend and a fifteen-year old boy being stabbed in the Garfarvogur neighbourhood of Reykjavík earlier this week.

COVID-19 in Iceland: No Infections Spread in Prisons

prison

Vaccination efforts in Iceland’s prisons are going well, according to the Prison and Probation Administration. Prison staff have all had at least one shot of the vaccine and prisoner vaccinations are upcoming. Inmates in Litla-Hraun and Sogn prisons will receive their vaccination today but inmates in Hólmsheiði prison will receive their shot late next week. Litla-Hraun and Hólmsheiði are closed prisons but Sogn is an open facility. 

No infections have occurred in Iceland’s prison staff or inmates but one individual was infected when they were taken into custody. They received the necessary healthcare and the infection didn’t spread.

In a Facebook post announcing the progress of vaccinations, The Prison and Probation Administration thank their staff, medical workers, inmates, and Afstaða, an advocacy group for better prison policies and betterment, for their success in infection prevention measures.

In February, Iceland’s prisons were at full capacity again but during the pandemic, the prisons were compartmentalised to prevent the possible spread of infection. Visits and day leaves were also suspended temporarily.

Currently, a record 210 individuals are fulfilling their sentence with community service, but the opportunity for such work was severely hampered during the pandemic when such workplaces closed or limited their operations. According to the Prison and Probation Administration’s website, community service work mostly consists of cleaning or maintenance work for charity and other organisations.

Read more on Iceland’s prisons

Suspended Prison Sentence, 800K Fine for Defamation of Character

The Reykjavík District Court handed down a four-month suspended prison sentence for lewd conduct and significant defamation of character to a local man on Thursday, RÚV reports. The man has also been sentenced to pay his former fiancé ISK 800,000 [$5,792; €4,931] in damages.

Per the court ruling, in December 2018, the man sent his ex’s then-boyfriend messages saying that she was dishonest and repeatedly calling her names. He then sent a sexual video of the woman to her boyfriend and three other people. The District Court found that in so doing, the man had shamed, insulted, and degraded the woman.

The man openly admitted his offenses to the court and did not contest the charges made against him.

“It makes all the difference – what people have most of here is time”

Contrary to many people’s images of prison life, the inmates of Sogn Prison in South Iceland spend their days working outdoors and are given the opportunity to pursue creative projects in their free time, Vísir reports.

Sogn is defined as an open prison, which means that there are no walls or fences, although inmates must still abide, of course, by clear rules and regulations. There is room for 21 inmates at the facility, but there are currently only 14 people incarcerated at Sogn Prison, all of whom are men. (The prison has accommodations for three women, if necessary.)

Screenshot, Vísir.

During the summer, the inmates’ working responsibilities are varied: they look after for chickens, gathering eggs and caring for baby chicks, they garden in the greenhouse, and oversee a small Arctic char aquaculture operation. In the winter, they have the opportunity to take courses through South Iceland College in nearby Selfoss.

Screenshot, Vísir.

During their free time, the inmates have access to a wide variety of instruments that were donated by the Lions Club of Mosfellsbær and can even work in an on-site recording studio.

“There’s always a group that has musical talent – it’s great,” warden Hróbjartur Eyjólfsson explained to reporters. “It shortens the hours a great deal.”

“It makes all the difference,” Hróbjartur said when asked if it was important to have such a range of activities and pursuits available to inmates at the prison. “What people have most of here is time. It is extremely important to have something you can turn your attention to.”

Prison Closure in Akureyri Faces Opposition

prison

The Minister of Justice says the planned closure of Akureyri Prison in North Iceland will allow for better use of funding within the prison system. Six hundred and thirty-eight people are on a waiting list to serve sentences due to lack of space in prisons, RÚV reports. The decision has faced opposition from the City of Akureyri and others.

Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir asserts closing the prison will free up funding for three times the number of spots in prisons in the Southwest. Funding for ten spots at Akureyri Prison could fund 30 spots in Hólmsheiði and Litla Hraun Prisons in Southwest Iceland. Akureyri City Council criticised the decision, however, saying it goes against the government’s policy to increase public jobs outside the capital area. The prison currently employs five people.

“This is of course not an insignificant decision and it is our policy to move jobs out to the countryside, but it also has to be in a way that creates jobs that pay off,” Áslaug Arna said. “Here, of course, we’re seeing that prison utilisation and the cost of operating this prison are very heavy. We are both less than 80% utilization of prison spaces, we don’t see increased funding in prisons in the near future and it’s possible to use 30 spots in the big prisons for the same funds as we use ten in the north.” Áslaug says the government will continue to work to increase public service jobs outside of the Reykjavík capital area.

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.