Published September 27, 2011
Given that the comedian Doug Stanhope has a gig at Iceland’s maximum-security prison (read this interview with him) at the end of September, we figured we would give you the low down—or something short of that—on Iceland’s prison system.
For starters, there are six facilities, which house an average of 137 convicts per day, according to data provided by the Prison Administration. That’s a prison population of about 43 per 100.000 inhabitants, which is a fairly small number compared to the United States’ whopping 756 prisoners per 100.000 inhabitants. Most of them are there for drug-related charges, followed by embezzlement and forgery, violent crimes, sex offences, and traffic law violations.
Prisoners spend their days working, making for instance, tic tac toe games, benches, boxes, license plates and cement blocks (which are available for purchase at fangelsi.is), or attending school, which they can do in lieu of work. Prison and Probation Administration representative Hafdís Guðmundsdóttir says compensation varies significantly, but the average prisoner is making 28.000 ISK/month.
With this money they are expected to buy their own groceries and personal items. The iconic image of prisoners eating cafeteria-style meals together in a big dining hall is far from the reality in Iceland where prisoners cook their own meals, with the exception of Hegningarhúsið (on Skólavörðustígur in 101 Reykjavík), which lacks facilities.
Four star hotels
Though they’re not as luxurious as Norway’s Halden prison, which boasts a rock climbing gym, Iceland’s prisons have a reputation for being rather comfortable. As Hosmany Ramos said after his famous one-minute escape last year, “I’m not in prison here. This is like a four star hotel. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Granted, he was used to sharing a similar size cell with 30 to 40 prisoners in Brazil.
In Iceland, prisoners are given their own cell and are permitted to bring with them items like a radio, a CD player and speakers, a flat screen TV up to 26” or a tube TV up to 21,” a personal computer with a 23” flat screen, keyboard, printer, mouse and speakers, 150 CDs and DVDS with see-through cases, reading and writing material, and games. Furnished cells look very much like dorm rooms (though they are leagues above the rooms at UCLA, for instance, where nearly all freshman bunk up with at least one roommate in half the space).
After prisoners have fulfilled one third of their sentence, they can apply for leave from the prison as frequently as once per month to spend a day with family and friends or short-term leave to visit an ill relative, attend a funeral of a close relative, attend the birth, baptism or confirmation of his or her child, and “attend to particularly urgent personal interests.”
While this did not allow MP Árni Johnsen—who served two years at Kvíabryggja for buying linoleum (and other stuff) on the State’s dime for personal use—to go sing and play guitar at the Þjóðhátíð festival in Vestmannaeyjar, he didn’t seem to have it too rough. During his time there, he reportedly made 40 large-scale rock sculptures, wrote five books on various topics, and as bloggers remarked, “changed the prison into a multiple star hotel” by getting The Red Cross to buy the inmates new beds, which he personally picked out. At the time, Fréttablaðið reported that the same beds were being used at KEA, Hótel Loftleiðir, Hótel Saga and Hótel Ísland.
Soon after Árni was released, DV reported that he went on a vacation to the Caribbean with Kvíabryggja’s Head Prison Chief Geirmundur Vilhjálmsson, who is now ironically under investigation for embezzling prison funds to buy his personal groceries (among other things). Purchases rang up for 3,5 million ISK in the first ten months of 2010 compared to 1,4 million in 2009, and included “luxury” items like “chicken fillets, rainbow trout, candy and soda,” which “aren’t served in the prisons,” according to the story that appeared in Fréttablaðið.
Shortly after Geirmundur was put on leave in November 2010 (and given half pay), Fréttablaðið reported that officials found motorbikes, a four-wheeler and a few cars at Kvíabryggja, which also did not belong at the prison, explaining the prison’s purchases of spare car parts including 79 light bulbs, car enamel, and fuel for 750.000 ISK.
Of course, as a low-security facility, Kvíabryggja grants prisoners more freedom than the other prisons and so it is generally reserved for the trustworthiest of convicts. Interestingly, it came to light that prisoners there are allowed free use of their cell phones between 8:00 and 23:00 when an accused rapist allegedly phoned his victim, according to an mbl.is story, “Murderer and rapist serving time at Kvíabryggja” (right…).
Sorry, no vacancy
Not that people are vying for a nice room at Iceland’s “luxurious” prisons, Hafdís says there are 350 convicted criminals waiting to serve their term on any given day. Typically she says the convicted have to wait from one day to four to five years to begin serving their time.
This problem of overcrowding is by no means new news. Plans to build a prison in the capital city have been in the works for nearly fifty years and police in downtown Reykjavík have been waiting for a new temporary detention centre for the last fourteen years, according to a RÚV report.
Because Hegningarhúsið, the temporary detention centre at Skólavörðustígur, only has room for sixteen, police have to send prisoners long distances. A police report from the year 2000 estimated that the city spent at least an additional 10 to 15 million ISK per year on transporting prisoners between the city and Litla Hraun, which is located 61 kilometres outside of Reykjavík.
Now there are serious plans to build a new prison at Hólmsheiði with room for an additional 56 prisoners (we’ve heard that before), but the project is tied up because government officials cannot agree on whether the project should be financed by the State or a private party.
So Doug Stanhope’s fans should be advised that if they commit a crime to get into his show at Litla Hraun—claiming the ‘Stanhope defence’—there’s a good chance that they will still miss it by four or five years. While Litla Hraun’s prisoners and a few lucky visitors enjoy his gig, the rest of us law abiding citizens who pay rent in town will just have to catch Doug elsewhere.
1. Hegningarhúsið, Iceland’s oldest prison, opened in 1874, holds 16 prisoners. This prison is located on Skólavörðustígur in downtown Reykjavík.
2. Litla-Hraun, maximum-security detention centre, opened in 1929, holds 87 prisoners.
3. Kópavogsbraut 17, opened in 1989, holds 12 prisoners. This is the women’s prison, but as there have only been a maximum of eight women serving at the same time, men are also housed here.
4. Kvíabryggja, opened in 1963, holds 22 prisoners. This is a low security prison for the most trustworthy of convicts, those who have committed white collar crimes.
5. Akureyri, opened in 2008, holds 10 prisoners.
6. Bitra, opened in 2010, holds 18 prisoners.
Top Five Reasons People Are Doing Time
1. Drug-related offence
3. Sexual offense
4. Violent crime
5. Traffic law violation