Greenland's open prison system

Greenland's open prison system

6th December 2008, Comments 0 comments

Before 1976, the large icy island of Greenland didn't have a prison. People who committed crimes were sent to fishermen who had the respect of the community, to be re-educated.

Correctional institution, Nuuk, Greenland
Today, Greenland does have a couple of prisons, but outsiders would be hard pressed to recognize any similarities with the prison system most of us are familiar with. They are "open" prisons - in that they are detention centres where committed offenders are locked up only between the hours of 9.30 pm and 6.30 am.

Outside of those hours, prisoners are allowed to wander freely around town, hold down paying jobs, visit their families, before perhaps going to the video rental store to pick up a movie or two to pass the evening hours inside.
In addition, prisoners are allowed to pick up arms to go hunting and fishing during weekends and holidays - as long as they're accompanied by armed guards.

Waiting list
Oh - and there's a waiting list to get in. With 123 available prison places, there are currently 128 convicted offenders who are outside, still waiting for a vacancy in the prison. Once convicted, a prisoner usually just carries on with his daily life until he gets a phone call - it could take a year or so - summoning him to finally come to do his time.

"The aim is not to punish - we don't even call it a prison" says Peter Kristensen, the Head of Greenland's Prison Service, "We want to re-habilitate the prisoner - after all, we only have 56,000 people in Greenland, and we can't afford to lose any of them."

Open system
Peter Kristensen, the Head of Greenland's Prison Service © RNW
Prisoners do the first tenth of their sentence locked in a building - notably, not a prison cell. If their conduct during this time has been acceptable, they will then be allowed to serve the rest of their time under the open system - they can come and go as they wish, working or studying in the outside world, visiting their families, perhaps stopping by the video store of an evening to pick up a couple of movies to pass the evening. They are locked up between the hours of 9.30 pm and 6 am.

But does this open system work? Do prisoners who are treated in such a humane way, tend to reform when they are released? According to Kristensen, that depends on the person.
"Some people behave inside, and then you have a nicer person when he comes out, but a lot of young people are angry and they behave badly."
There is no concrete evidence that this kind of open system has a noticeably positive affect on recidivists - that is, it cannot be categorically stated that prisoners of this open system will re-commit less than those who are put behind bars.
However Kristensen maintains this open system is a better one, especially in the light of treating a native people like the Innuit who are so closely connected with their outside surroundings. 
Correctional institution, Nuuk, Greenland © RNW
Correctional institution, Nuuk, Greenland © RNW  

Societal changes
However, this open system was designed for a different society, close knit and bound to traditional ways, but in the last 50 years, industrialization, alcoholism, globalisation and unemployment have all left their mark on Greenland.
Robbery and assault are on the rise and in the past, serious offenders thought to pose a danger to society were shipped off to a closed prison in Denmark. 
"But that is not so humane",  says Annette Esdorf, Copenhagen-based Vice Director of the Department Overseeing Prisons. Greenland's serious offenders are brought thousands of kilometres away and so are almost out of reach of family visits.
So, after an intensive investigation by Danish and Greenlander authorities, it was decided that the situation would need to be remedied. 

A new prison will be built in Greenland which will combine closed and open facilities. However, building such a structure on a basic foundation of ice is no easy task and the new facility is not expected to be operational till after 2013.
But once it comes, Greenlanders who commit serious crimes can do their time at home instead of in another country, while their victims can be protected from the possibility of bumping into their aggressors at the local butchers or video store.

Dheera Sujan 
Radio Netherlands
Photo credit: Risagernick_russillRNW

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