MIL-OSI Global: How Iceland takes better care of its foreign offenders than the rest of Europe

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Source: The Conversation – UK – By Francis Pakes, Professor of Criminology, University of Portsmouth

It is hard being a prisoner. It is even harder if you’re a foreign national. You may not speak the local language. You probably won’t have family nearby to visit you. The establishment might not make it easy for you to observe your religion.

Forensic psychologist Jason Warr has shown how foreign national prisoners not only suffer from the isolation and deprivation of liberty that all prisoners experience, they are also deprived of certitude. The way immigration systems intersect with criminal justice systems means that these prisoners often have neither certainty over when they’ll be released nor confidence in how that will be decided.

Foreign offenders make up a significant proportion of prison populations across western Europe. For a recent study, I asked the Icelandic prison authorities if I could spend a week living in each of the country’s two open prisons, where 42% of prisoners at the time were foreign nationals. I wanted to understand these institutions from the inside, to see what Iceland is doing differently.

Kvíabryggja open prison in western Iceland.
Palli3000|Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Humane settings

A small European country tucked away in the north Atlantic, Iceland has only four prisons. This is, of course a result of the country’s tiny population. But in this small world of prisons, it seems that arrangements are possible that we do not often see elsewhere.

There are two closed – Hólmsheiði, on the outskirts of Reykjavik and the largest, Litla-Hraun, just outside Eyrarbakki, on the south coast – and two open prisons.

The latter are comparatively tiny, catering only for about 20 prisoners. Sogn is found on the southern plains, where horse riding is popular. Kvíabryggja, in the remote west of the country, sits right next to Kirkjufell, an iconic mountain that featured in Game of Thrones. These are the kind of settings where you would expect a lush hotel, not a prison.

Inside, both provide tranquillity and good food, cooked by prisoners. Officer-prisoner relationships are generally good. Importantly, there is generous internet access (with obvious restrictions). In other words, there are worse places to serve time.

I requested a room (the word cell simply does not apply to the accommodation that much resembles university housing in the UK) in which I would live the daily life of a prisoner. I would interview anyone who was willing to speak with me. The prison authorities agreed, and the governors of each establishment did too. They were keen to help me understand their ethos.

Almost half of the open-prison population in Iceland is comprised of foreign nationals. The language during games and watching TV was often English rather than Icelandic.

In the UK, by contrast, the overall figure of foreign nationals is 9.7%. In Ireland, it is 13.8%.

Every foreign prisoner obviously has a unique set of circumstances. However, here I saw patterns in how people were adapting to being imprisoned in a foreign land. Some seem to accept their fate with a certain resignation.

Bruno from southern Europe had been convicted of smuggling cannabis. He used the internet to talk to family. Youtube helped him stay connected to his professional field, as a technician. Alexis, from South America, used Skype to stay in touch with relatives.

These prisoners adjusted to the open prison conditions pretty well. They also realise that in their home countries, life in prison would be considerably harder.

Being imprisoned on a foreign land

For others the experience was different. The prison holds both men and women, and Adele, from western Europe, was outraged at the length of her sentence, which was more than 10 years, despite her cooperation with the police. She felt betrayed and isolated, distrustful of the criminal justice system.

So too Werner, also from western Europe, who felt let down by the system, by his defence lawyer and by the country as a whole. Both Adele and Werner might concede that the open-prison conditions are benign.

However, they remain bewildered by the fact that they are there in the first place as they simply did not expect to be sentenced to years of imprisonment for drug-related crimes.

Some prisoners I spoke with have taken advantage of these benign conditions to carve out a senior role for themselves. Arjan, from western Europe, served as a chef. This is a highly regarded position in the prison and has the added bonus of a weekly trip to the nearby town to go grocery shopping.

Philip too, was a chef and proud of that. The food is often locally sourced, always cooked on site and, crucially, there’s enough to eat.

This stands in stark contrast with many prisons across Europe, where the food – grey, tasteless and usually insufficient – is brought in.

Prisoners like Philip argue that they are mentors for younger prisoners. They cook good food and play an important part in running the prison. They have sought to elevate their status, seeking to place themselves above the Icelandic prisoners, who are often younger, and are closer to the officers, who they find friendly, yet ineffectual although this is not a view shared by all prisoners. For prisoners like Philip, the prison conditions provide an opportunity for status elevation.

While the foreign prisoners I met in Iceland cope to different degrees, they are not suffering the same multiple disadvantages of isolation and deprivation as their counterparts in other western countries.

Few get in-person visits, but they are able to stay in touch with loved ones through internet access. They are able to work or learn. This means they earn substantially more money than prisoners in other countries. They don’t fear bullying or brutality, and they are not segregated from the mainstream.

The prison experience I witnessed is less traumatic and less violating to people’s sense of self. While the pains of imprisonment that Warr discusses are certainly still felt, people’s status as foreign nationals does not exacerbate those pains.

In the interest of fairness and equity, that is an important achievement of Iceland’s open prisons. Other countries, including the UK, would be wise to take note.

Francis Pakes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. How Iceland takes better care of its foreign offenders than the rest of Europe –

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