Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

ICELAND: They Also Serve Who Wait For a Prison Seat

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Mar 15 2010 (IPS) - After a nail-biting wait of more than a year Jon Palsson (not real name) is happy to have secured a place in the city jail and get an early enough chance to serve out a four-month sentence for drunk driving.

Reyjavik's city prison Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

Reyjavik's city prison Credit: Lowana Veal/IPS

Iceland is seriously short of prison seats and there is a list of some 250 convicted people, many of them waiting for a turn in jail.

“The uncertainty while waiting was very tough, not knowing if I would be called in or not. But it’s better now that I’m in and can see an end to it all,” Palsson told IPS in an interview.

In Iceland, very few people are actually sent to jail and the ratio of convicts to people is among the lowest in the world. There are only 42 prisoners per 100,000 people, according to Erlendur Baldursson, a criminologist with the State Prison and Probation Administration (SPPA.

“Compared to that the United States had 754 imprisoned convicts per 100,000 people in December 2008,” said Baldursson.

Yet, there is an ever increasing waiting list at Icelandic prisons, caused by longer sentences and a growing number of foreigners who get caught for criminal activity, putting pressure on available accommodation.

Prisons are not a priority in the Icelandic scheme of things. A new prison has been on the drawing board since 1970, when the Icelandic population was just over 204,000.

Now, with a total population of 315,000, Iceland has 145 places in five prisons – 37 more than in 1970, as new wings have been added on to existing prisons.

A former guesthouse, Bitra, is currently being renovated to serve as a temporary jail for 20 prisoners. “Bitra will be used to house prisoners who behaved well while serving their terms and have not committed any breaches of discipline,” says Pall Winkel, director of the SPPA.

More relief comes from the fact that not all of the 250 people on the waiting list of convicts may actually have to serve time.

“Many will do community service and thus will not go to prison,’’ said Baldursson, adding that proposals for expanded capacity were pending with the ministry of justice and human rights.

“More prison space is obviously needed. Also, we should shorten the length of stay in prisons and use the ‘half-rule’ more, which means that those who are not considered dangerous or have not committed major crimes can be released after serving half of their sentence rather than two-thirds, which is usually the case today,” says Helgi Gunnlaugsson, professor of sociology at the University of Iceland.

Waiting lists are common in the Nordic countries. “Prisons are generally overcrowded and there are always some people who are waiting to start their sentences,’’ says Baldursson. “In Norway, for a short while, there were several thousand people on the waiting list, but this has been cut substantially.”

In Iceland, community service is resorted to for minor crimes and is imposed on about 100 convicts each year. “The number of those taking out community service has not increased greatly over the years. But the option could certainly be used more if enough suitable places are found and if the defendant falls under the required conditions,” adds Gunnlaugsson.

In addition to those who are waiting to start their prison sentences, “Some 1,800 people have been served with fines,” says Winkel. “If they don’t pay, they will have to serve a prison term as an alternative,” he adds.

Although efforts are made to put the most dangerous prisoners behind bars straight away, Winkel says there are instances where individuals convicted for sexual crimes or assaults are put on the waiting list.

Efforts are made to accommodate the more dangerous prisoners faster. “Sometimes people who are serving terms as an alternative to fines are sent home in the middle of their sentence,” says Winkel.

Part of the problem is caused by the growing number of foreigners in Icelandic prisons. There are currently 29 foreigners in Icelandic prisons. “Foreigners represent about 20 percent of the prison population. Ten years ago, they were only about two – five percent,” informs Baldursson.

Despite being a small island, Iceland has not been immune to organised crime, operated mostly by gangs of foreign criminals. Often police round up several members of a gang in a raid and then find they have to keep them under custody in police stations which are not designed for long detentions.

Foreign prisoners are usually deported, but this can be a long process, sometimes taking several months. In a reverse situation Icelanders sentenced for crimes committed overseas may be brought back to Iceland to serve out their terms – though this is not automatic.

What is the effect of a long waiting list on those sentenced to serve time?

“They are in limbo … all their plans, whether to do with family, work or study, are in turmoil. The situation can also foment crime, as they think ‘well, it’s a long time before I get sent down’, and in the meantime there is a risk that they will commit other crimes,” explains Gunnlaugsson.

In the one year and five months that Palsson waited for accommodation he had become a family man. “Since then I got a family… girlfriend, child and another on the way,” he told IPS.

Palsson was taking drugs but stopped when his girlfriend became pregnant. He also got work in December after a year of being unemployed.

“It was very hard to look for work and know that I would have to serve my sentence at some point. Luckily my employer is keeping my job open for me when I come out,” Palsson said.

“If some people want to start their sentences immediately we try to accommodate them,” said Baldursson.

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