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Back in 1997, Danish convicts serving what are known as indefinite sentences, prison terms with no set period of imprisonment, were released after an average of seven years and 10 months. By 2011, the average had risen to 14 years and seven months, prison records show.
For Greenlandic inmates sitting in Denmark’s Herstedvester prison, the average length is often longer, according to Hans Jørgen Engbo, the head of Kriminalforsorgen, the Danish prison authority.
In all, there are 26 Greenlanders serving indefinite sentences in Herstedvester. Another nine are in lower-security Greenlandic jails. In 2018, most of them will be transferred to Nuuk when construction of the country’s first prison is complete. The facility will have capacity for 40 maximum-security prisoners. Another 20 serving regular sentences will also be housed in maximum security, which means the facility is over capacity before it even opens.
“The crime rate in Greenland is falling, but the number of prisoners serving indefinite sentences is growing, because we’re adding more faster than we are releasing them,” Engbo says.
The Greenlandic prisoners serving indefinite sentences in Herstedvester have been there on average for more than 10 years. Some of the inmates, Engbo notes, are new arrivals, which means that others have been there more than 20 years.
“If the trend continues, then we’re going to run out of room at the new prison. But, there are some that will probably ask to stay in Herstedvester, so it likely won’t be a problem for five or 10 years.”
In the Danish justice system, an indefinite sentence is the toughest punishment that a judge can hand down, and they are normally reserved for only the most dangerous offenders. Those who are sentenced to serve indefinitely have no idea when they’ll be released. Furlough is not possible for the first several years, and a sentence is commuted in only the rarest circumstances.
The Nuuk prison will be built into a hillside overlooking Nuuk Fjord (Image: Schmidt Hammer Lassen)
A prisoner can only be released with the permission of a judge, but a psychological evaluation must be carried out first. Just why indefinite sentences have become longer in the past 20 years, according to Engbo, is the result of a number of factors.
“Psychological evaluations are made on a regular basis, but how the evaluations are conducted can change over time, just like policy and the criminal justice system itself can also change,” he says. “The media and society’s attitude toward criminal justice can also play a role.”
That Greenlanders serve longer than average may be matter of Greenlandic judges being tougher on crime, though Engbo admits there is noting to prove this is the case.
“But, regardless of why, the fact is that they serve longer, and that’s going to be a problem for the prison in Nuuk. They take up beds, and one of the whole points of the new prison is to allow inmates with indefinite sentences to serve in Nuuk. That’s going be a challenge.”
In addition to the a maximum-security unit, Nuuk prison’s will also have two lower-security units, with room for 36 inmates between them.
“The idea behind the prison in Nuuk to create is a correctional facility that gives inmates as much contact with staff as possible, and to make it easy to access outdoor areas,” says Erik Bank, who, as Kriminalforsorgen’s head of facilities, is overseeing construction of the prison.
In addition, the prison will include workshops and recreational facilities, such as an outdoor football pitch, as well as a church and visiting areas. The common room will feature a panorama window overlooking the fjord and the mountains behind Nuuk. Individual cells will have a similar view.
Another of the ideas that guided design of the prison was flexibility. Prison staff will be able to arrange rooms and cells based on the needs of individual prisoners.
“At some point, we might want to set up a women’s unit, or one for inmates who are addicted to drugs. It’s easier to do that if we’ve thought about that possibility from the get-go,” Bang says, adding that security was also a key consideration.
“One important principle was that security shouldn’t be based on weapons, force or technology. That meant that the building itself needed to lend itself to safe situations.,”
Initially, Kriminalforsorgen had planned to close its Greenlandic unit at Herstedvester once the Nuuk prison opened. That decision is being reconsidered after it became possible for current inmates to decide whether they wanted to remain in Denmark. A working group is currently looking into how such prisoners would be housed.
Even though there are still details that need to be sorted out, building a prison in Greenland is the right thing to do, according to Aleqa Hammond, a former Greenlandic premier who was serving as finance minister in 2007 when Danish authorities made the decision to do so.
“This has been something that has been neglected for 50 years. Both Denmark and Greenland have agreed all along that there should be a prison in Nuuk that could house the hardest criminals, but the decision has been put off repeatedly, and as a result the cost has risen,” she says. “Building a prison is expensive, but it is a long-term investment.”
However, she underscores that a prison building itself is just one element of the correctional system.
“This is the first time that Greenland will have a maximum-security correctional facility, or that we’ll be responsible for this type of inmate. We’re going to need to be ready to do that,” she says. “Corrections officers, healthcare workers, and mental-health professionals all need to be brought up to speed. The psychiatric care and the medical treatment inmates are offered needs to suit prisoners who are sitting in a maximum-security prison. My hope is that the prison in Nuuk can lead to a general improvement in psychiatric care throughout Greenland.”
This is the second of two of articles looking at the opening of Greenland’s first prison. Last week, we met two prisoners serving in Denmark and asked them whether they’d be moving to Nuuk when the new prison opens.
This article was originally published in AG, a Greenlandic newspaper that is owned by this website’s parent company.