‘Shocking’ lack of prison security

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Just weeks after Norway opened one of the fanciest prisons in the world, security seems out of control at an older jail in Oslo. Even one of the country’s most liberal politicians is shocked over reports that prisoners are receiving drugs and mobile phones, tossed over prison walls, and are able to communicate freely with the outside world.

While there's no "security zone" around the Oslo Prison, the new one here in Halden features vast grounds, greenery and even jogging trails. Time Magazine is among international publications raving about the prison, but its usage isn't going entirely according to plan. PHOTO: Statsbygg

Newspaper VG reported Sunday that it’s all made possible by trees conveniently located alongside the wall of Oslo Fengsel, the main prison located in an inner-city neighbourhood on the Norwegian capital’s east side.

The wall is only four meters high, and there are no laws against climbing up in the trees next to it. So friends and associates of inmates have been doing just that, and throwing wanted items in to them as well. Mobile phones and drugs are high on the list, while prisoners shout out orders and messages to those on the outside.

“A four-meter wall makes it impossible to stop narcotics or phones from being thrown in to the inmates,” acting prison director Kim Ekhaugen told VG. “This is happening often, but we really fear that one day weapons will be thrown over the wall, too.”

At the new Halden Prison, inmates have private rooms complete with flat-screen TVs and their own tiled bathroom. PHOTO: Statsbygg

Ekhaugen said the situation “is one of the challenges in having a prison right in the middle of Oslo. It’s not possible to have the kind of security zones that are found at prisons like Ullersmo, Ringerike or Halden.”

The latter, Halden Fengsel, just opened earlier this spring and has caught lots of international attention for its relatively lavish accommodation for prisoners. All have their own private room, complete with flat screen TV and en suite bath, and the prison also features a long list of amenities aimed at rehabilitating the inmates and steering them away from a life of crime, like a well-equipped library, gym and full range of educational programs. Prisoners can study anything offered in the local college and there’s even a sound studio for those interested in music.

Unfortunately, not everything has been going according to plan in Halden either. Despite all the praise for its humane approach to caring for criminals, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported recently that most of those installed in the artistically appointed prison won’t be contributing to Norwegian society through any rehabilitation. They’re foreigners convicted of serious crimes and waiting to be sent out of the country, but enjoying while they wait what one man from Lithuania said was “the nicest place” he’d ever stayed in. 

If that doesn’t embarrass or frustrate the liberal penal system officials running the prison that cost taxpayers NOK 1.5 billion, the lack of restrictions on the prisoners in Oslo clearly is bothering officials there. “Messages are being yelled in to the inmates in languages our staff doesn’t understand,” Ekhaugen told VG. The prison houses convicts from 50 different countries.

“We know that they’re yelling out orders for narcotics,” Ekhaugen added. “They’re also sending and receiving messages about what should be said during court hearings or police questioning, even though those in custody aren’t supposed to get mail or visitors.”

Jan Bøhler, from the left wing of the Labour Party, sits on the Parliament’s Justice Committee and doesn’t like what’s going on. “It’s a clear risk to security that the prison is so open for contact with the rest of the world,” said Bøhler, generally known for his liberal views. “It shouldn’t be possible for inmates to get goods from the outside, or have uncontrolled contact.” He said he was “shocked” by what he saw during a recent visit.

City parks and recreation officials are responsible for the trees and park area outside the prison, which is especially popular when the weather warms up. “No one has complained to us,” said Tore Næss of the parks agency Friluftsetaten. He said his department had “a dialogue” with prison authorities “some time ago,” and an agreement was reached to cut down some trees and trim others.

“If there’s something that needs to be discussed now, they’re welcome to contact us,” Næss said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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