Jails to get more psychiatric units

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The Norwegian government has agreed to build new psychiatric units for troubled inmates at the country’s high-security Ila Prison just outside Oslo. Plans were announced after Norway had to answer for its treatment of such inmates during a meeting at the UN in Geneva.

Justice and Immigration Minister Jøran Kallmyr (right) cut the ribbon Tuesday at the opening of a new prison specially built for women along with the new minister in charge of family and children’s issues, Kjell Ingolf Ropstad. PHOTO: Kriminalomsorgsdirektoratet

“The government’s goal is that all mentally ill inmates will be handled with dignity and receive adequate psychiatric care,” Thor Kleppen Sætten, a state secretary in the justice ministry, told news bureau NTB.

The most concrete measure will come in the form of a new psychiatric unit to be built at Ila, which holds some of Norway’s most dangerous convicts. It will be able to house six of the most ill and aggressive inmates, reported newspaper Bergens Tidende. Around NOK 18 million (USD 2.1 million) has been set aside in the state budget to build the facility that Sætten said will be the first of several more.

“Capacity for psychiatric treatment for inmates will be improved in the coming years,” Sætten told UN officials in charge of ensuring human rights, through construction of new specially built units. Norway reportedly had come under criticism for an alleged lack of psychiatric care for convicts needing it.

Newspaper Dagsavisen recently reported on inmates who have smashed televisions, removed screws from furniture or shreaded bedclothes and linens in an effort to hurt or kill themselves. The Bredtveit Prison in Oslo registered 17 attempted suicides last year, all carried out by just three mentally ill inmates.

Prison staff, meanwhile, have described workdays full of violence and threats from inmates who’ve been convicted of serious crimes. “These convicts wouldn’t have been sentenced to prison 10 years ago,” one prison security inspector, Christopher McCabe, told Dagsavisen. “They would have been taken care of in a psychiatric hospital.”

Others have argued that mentally disturbed inmates become even more ill and dangerous if held in prison, where there’s a tendency to hold them in isolation without access to regular psychiatric care. Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservative Party admitted that the care offered “inmates with psychiatric health challenges is not good enough.”

There have been few improvements, however, and Member of Parliament Petter Eide of the opposition Socialist Left party (SV) claimed earlier this month that the government was letting down its sickest inmates. Eide claims the mentally ill inmates, believed to number around 15 to 20 at any given time in Norway are victims of human rights violations.

Høie has countered that several hadn’t been deemed ill enough to be sent for psychiatric care, but dangerous enough that they need to be held in custody. He said his ministry had been working with the justice ministry on improvements including the new units being built at Ila.

The government also ceremoniously opened a new women’s prison at Evje in Northern Norway this week that will offer 20 units for low-security female inmates and 10 for those requiring high-security confinement. The prison was specially designed for women and will also offer a drug treatment facility, educational and health care services.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund