Nearly 1,200 convicted criminals are waiting to serve their time at Norwegian prisons, because of a shortage of cell space in prisons that also need renovation. Justice Minister Anders Anundsen calls the situation “dramatic,” and blames earlier governments for failing to take the need for more jail space seriously.
The shortage of cell space is not a new problem in Norway, and convicts have been placed on waiting lists for years. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Wednesday, however, that the list has grown by more than 400 just in the last year. Norwegian prisons have burst their capacity, while the need for jail space continues to grow at a rapid pace.
“The courts are issuing more prison sentences than we can handle,” Marianne Vollan, director of the state prison system that goes under the rather surprisingly tender name of Kriminalomsorgen, literally “care of criminals.” At the same time, maintenance of many of Norway’s prisons has been neglected and some are in such poor condition that some of the cell space may need to be closed if more funds aren’t released for renovation work. While Norway has spent billions building some of the fanciest prisons in the world, more than 90 percent of the old main prison in downtown Oslo has been categorized as prime for demolition, while conditions at the Ullersmo prison are also said to be poor.
“This is a situation that can’t continue,” Vollan wrote in a letter to Anundsen, who took over as justice minister after the new conservative government won last fall’s election, ending eight years of a left-center government coalition.
During that government period, Norway opened its landmark prison at Halden, which attracted international attention for its prison cells featuring flat-screen TVs and its spacious grounds. The reality at other prisons can be much different. with Vollan listing a lack of capacity, a resulting inability to accommodate those sentenced to prison, an urgent need for more short-term prison space for remand custody (varetektsplasser) and an urgent need for renovation.
Vollan’s department is working on a maintenance plan with the state property division Statsbygg, which legally owns the prison buildings. “The need for upgrading varies from normal remodeling to full rehabilitation,” Vollan said. She claimed that allowing some prisoners to serve their sentences at home, with restricted movement controlled by electronic ankle links, has helped, but not enough.
Bernt Nordhaug, acting leader of the Ullersmo prison, confirmed the need for renovation and expansion, adding that the renovation is needed both to improve living conditions for prisoners, working conditions for prison staff and security. Statsbygg also describes the need for prison refurbishing and expansion as “acute,” while Anundsen stressed that the situation hasn’t been created overnight.
“It was entirely possible to address this situation earlier but unfortunately that wasn’t done,” Anundsen told Aftenposten. “Now the situation is serious.” He said the justice ministry, which is responsible for the prison system, will be proposing several measures this fall including construction of new cells in Oslo, securing alternative prison space while renovations are underway, building new cell space within the walls of existing prisons and building more prisons. He called the increase in the convicts’ waiting list “a natural result” of increased funding for the police, more arrests and more court convictions.