Perspectives | Denmark

Denmark’s Overflowing Prisons

By - 10.02.2022

Spilling over into Kosovo.

Though the two countries have previously had little to do with each other, in late December Denmark and Kosovo found themselves featured together in headlines across the globe. Kosovo’s almost 800 empty prison cells had caught Denmark’s eye. Headlines read: “Denmark to ship prisoners off to Kosovo.

In question was an agreement signed on December 21 to send 300 incarcerated people from Denmark to a detention center near Gjilan, 50 kilometers southeast of Prishtina. The 300 inmates will be exclusively third-country nationals sentenced to be deported from Denmark at the end of their prison term.

In return, Kosovo is expected to receive 200 million euros over a 10 year period. The money has been earmarked for green energy and rule of law reforms. Kosovo Justice Minister Albulena Haxhiu has called the investments “very necessary” and Danish Justice Minister Nick Hækkerup has asserted that “both countries are winning in this.”

But the idea of running a penal colony for an EU country has made many Kosovars uneasy, and despite the Danish government’s confidence, the agreement came under heavy scrutiny in Denmark as well. What is happening with Denmark and its prison system that has led them to ship their prisoners to one of Europe’s poorest countries? 

Trouble in Paradise?

Denmark and its Nordic neighbors are renowned for their high quality of life, excellent education systems and generous social welfare provisions. As a result, it may come as a surprise that Denmark’s prison system is in shambles.

According to Peter Vedel Kessing, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), “It’s not a priority in many states. They tend not to prioritize building prisons. They want to spend the money for something else.”

“They have very old prisons,” he said. “They’re not up to the proper conditions.

At the end of 2020 the Danish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalforsogen) reported that the prison system had the capacity to hold 4,073 prisoners. On average, there were 4,085 inmates occupying cells at any one time in 2020, putting them slightly over capacity.

A January 2020 report by the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics (SPACE) states that Denmark had 4,140 inmates while only possessing capacity for 4,035. Prison officials have created more space for inmates at the cost of basic provisions and common space.

According to a DIHR report from November 2021, “several prisons have closed down common rooms or classrooms to provide a sufficient number of cells.” The report also mentions the transformation of gyms, visiting rooms and offices into prison cells. 

In Denmark, each inmate is supposed to have a cell of their own. But in prisons like the one in Nykøbing, a city 130 kilometers south of Copenhagen, there are now two inmates per cell, according to a report from the Danish Prison and Probation Service. 

Now, instead of the further erosion of common spaces, inmates will be sent 2000 kilometers away.

The report included a forecast for 2022; they expect to be 7.9% over capacity. Both the Kriminalforsogen and prominent Danish media outlet Jyllands Posten have estimated a possible shortage of 1,000 spaces for inmates by the year 2025 if no permanent solutions are found.

Now, instead of the further erosion of common spaces, inmates will be sent 2000 kilometers away. Among other concerns, many Danes have noted that the agreement will violate prisoners’ visitation rights, as it will become far more difficult for families and friends of prisoners to make it to visiting hours in eastern Kosovo.

“If you suddenly have to visit your dad in Kosovo, that would not be a real option for the vast majority. As a 3-year-old child, you can not just travel to Kosovo once in a while, and the prisoner, of course, cannot come to the child,” the Danish newspaper Politiken quoted Mette Grith Stage, a defense attorney who represents many defendants fighting deportation. “That means that those deported lose contact with their family.”

To cover the anticipated 200 million euro expense over a decade, the Danish government recently announced they intend to increase taxes on television packages. The announcement caused bitter reactions from some Danes.

At a hearing in early February, the communications director of the organization Danish Media Distributors, Ib Konrad Jensen, said, “It is an excellent idea to write at the bottom of the [television] bill: ‘Here is your payment to Kosovo’s prison service.'”

Help Wanted

Not only is there a shortage of space in the penal system, Denmark has also been struggling to hire enough prison guards and has become severely understaffed in recent years.

The 2020 report from the Council of Europe showed that Albania has a higher proportion of prison guards to prisoners than Denmark. The comparison was brought to light in the Danish media to try to emphasize the poor quality of Danish prisons — look how bad we are, the implication was, even Albania is doing better than us.

Prison officials took exception to the comparison. “Albania is certainly an excellent country,” Bo Yde Sørensen, chairman of the Danish Prison Federation, is quoted as saying in an article from the newspaper Berlingske, “but it is not usually one that we compare our vital societal institutions to.”

Other Danish media outlets have made disparaging comparisons to Balkan countries as a way of highlighting problems in their own prison system. In the Nyborg Prison located on the island of Funen, Danish media outlet V2 reported that the quality of work is poorer than that of Bulgaria, stating that “on average, a prison officer in Nyborg Prison handles 2.8 inmates,” while “by comparison, the average is 2.4 in an average prison in Bulgaria.”

But as is clear, even in Denmark the system is having trouble maintaining conditions.

The widespread low expectations for Balkan prison conditions among the Danish media and prison establishment calls into question the assurances that the Danish government is serious about ensuring their prisoners in Gjilan will receive the conditions they are entitled to by Danish law.

But as is clear, even in Denmark the system is having trouble maintaining conditions. In Vestre Prison in Copenhagen, inmates are locked in their cells during the night since there are not enough guards to supervise them during the night watch. Inmates in Denmark are supposed to be allowed a high degree of freedom of movement within the prison facility, even during the night.

“It is no secret that the Danish Prison and Probation Service is in a very difficult situation. There are more inmates and fewer prison guards than ever before, and that creates challenges and puts a lot of pressure on our employees,” Berlingske quotes Sørensen as saying.

A press release from the Fængselsforbundet shows their need in stark terms: “Take 2015 as an example. At that time, there were 2,500 officers for 3,400 prisoners. That is 1.4 inmates per officer. Now the ratio is two to one. Two thousand officers for 4,200 inmates.”

In response to the staffing problems, Danish prisons have been resorting to just closing and locking doors.

“The way to avoid violence and to have a better atmosphere in prisons,” said Kessing, the DIHR researcher, is to “have a relationship between the prison, prisoner and the prison staff.”

“But due to the decrease in the [guard] numbers, they do not have the time anymore to develop relationships,” he said. 

Kosovo is the Answer

To overcome these challenges, Denmark appears to have taken an example from their neighbor Norway, which faced similar issues in 2015. That year Norway sent 242 inmates to the Netherlands to resolve overcapacity problems. But in 2018 the Norwegian government decided not to renew the deal in the face of complaints related to rehabilitation and jurisdiction.

Now Denmark has cast their eyes not on the Netherlands but on one of the poorest countries in Europe as a holding pen for their soon-to-be deported inmates.

“Your future does not lie in Denmark, and therefore you should not serve your sentence here either,” Justice Minister Nick Hækkerup said in a speech, reflecting Denmark’s growing anti-immigration rhetoric.

When convicts begin arriving in Gjilan in 2023, the prison will be run by Danish authorities, causing potential confusion about which country’s jurisdiction will be in place, similar to Norway’s issue with the Netherlands. 

Danish attorneys like Mette Grith Stage have voiced concern about this arrangement and are skeptical that Denmark’s penal laws will be thoroughly applied in the Kosovo prison system.

In an interview with DR, Denmark’s public broadcaster, Justice Minister Hækkerup said, “The prison must be overlooked by Danish management that must train local employees, which is why I am certain that the prisons will live up to Danish law and standard. It must be seen more as a piece of the Danish prison system that is located in Kosovo.” 

Do the people of Kosovo want to benefit from a penal colony for richer countries?

Denmark’s public statements throughout the whole affair have frequently cited their “significant presence” in Kosovo, however, Denmark is the only Scandinavian country not to have an embassy in Prishtina. The Danish embassy in Vienna that oversees affairs in the Balkans has outsourced that work to a lawyer’s office in Kosovo’s capital. 

At the same time, due to Denmark’s NATO obligations, 10,000 Danish troops have served in KFOR since 1999, and there are currently 30 Danish troops in Kosovo. In 2008, they were also one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence. 

Though saying they view Kosovo as an equal, the mere fact that Denmark is taking over authority in Kosovo’s prisons could legitimately be seen as undermining Kosovo’s sovereignty. When Norwegian prisoners were sent to the Netherlands, the prison continued to be under Dutch authority. 

But outside the concerns about jurisdiction, prison standards, visitation rights and cost there are bigger moral questions. Do the people of Denmark want to be operating offshore prison facilities for their incarcerated immigrants? And do the people of Kosovo want to benefit from a penal colony for richer countries? The governments of Denmark and Kosovo say yes, but what do the people say?

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.