Travel doesn’t have to entail hitting the road, hopping on a plane or lacing up your hiking boots to trek into remote destinations. There’s something to be said for the staycation, or travelling in time by getting to know the places you might see every day a little better. With that in mind, Elías Þórsson takes us on a journey through the human history of places right here in Reykjavík.
In common Icelandic parlance, the phrase “að vera stungið í Steininn” (to be put into the rock) means to be imprisoned. The phrase is a reference to one of Iceland’s most remarkable buildings — Hegningarhúsið. The stone building at Skólavörðustígur 9 was built in 1872 and is also known as Steininn, in reference to the rocks that make up its outer walls, or Nían, a nod to its house number. From its inception through to its closure in 2016 it functioned as a prison, housing up to 23 inmates at a time.
Despite being located on Iceland’s most photographed street, Steininn routinely gets overlooked by tourists posing for photos with its younger and more famous neighbour, Hallgrímskirkja church. Chances are you’ve walked past it numerous times, not realising that you were passing Iceland’s version of Alcatraz and one of Reykjavík’s most important buildings.
The prisoner pen
“The construction of Hegningarhúsið was a watershed moment in Icelandic architectural history,” says architect Hjörleifur Stefánsson. “It was the first time concrete was used for construction and marked the beginning of the trend of the rock cabins that used to litter Reykjavík.”
“The construction of Hegningarhúsið was a watershed moment in Icelandic architectural history.”
Hegningarhúsið was designed by the Danish construction official G. Ch. W. Klentz in a neo-classical style. Its layout is similar to prisons built elsewhere throughout the Kingdom at the time, but the building material makes it truly unique. The uncut stacks of rocks were pulled from the surrounding hill and they evoke the old Icelandic livestock pens that still dot the countryside.
Behind the building is a large enclosed courtyard where once prisoners would smoke, play basketball or just listen to the mundane, free city life on the other side of the imposing grey walls.
“It is one of the most beautiful houses built in Reykjavík from that time and its history is tied to the fate of so many Icelanders. It was groundbreaking in regards to construction technique and it is a momentous part of the history of law and order,” says Hjörleifur.
Spare the rod
Despite being one of Reykjavík’s oldest buildings, it was not the city’s first prison. A century earlier, the King of Denmark decreed that a place to house inmates was needed in the country and in the winter of 1770-71 “Múrinn” (The Wall) was erected. Today, Múrinn is the Lækjargata offices of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, but back then it housed criminals that the authorities rented out as slaves to various manual labour projects. However, after half a century of infamy, financial problems in Denmark caused by the Napoleonic wars forced authorities to shut down Múrinn in 1816 and release all its prisoners.
Corporal punishments had been outlawed in the Kingdom of Denmark, but due to Iceland’s now acute lack of prisons an exception was made for the country to continue using beatings for the betterment of its people. Sentences equaling three years or less in other parts of the Kingdom were punishable by lashings, while more serious offenders were be sent to Copenhagen to serve time.
“This was rather embarrassing for Icelanders as all our neighbouring countries had stopped using physical punishments,” says Hjörleifur. “A cultural shift was also happening around Europe at the time as authorities started to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.”
It was this sense of embarrassment that led to the construction of Hegningarhúsið.
Three in one
Following trends in Denmark at the time, Hegningarhúsið was designed to house not just prisoners, but also the municipal government and the courts. On the ground floor was the prison, while city officials and the Icelandic supreme court had their offices on the second floor. Its construction wasn’t, however, without controversy.
“Many town halls across the continent also served as prisons, but they tended to be in the centre of cities,” explains Hjörleifur. “Hegningarhúsið, however, was built outside of [central] Reykjavík and editorials at the time were quite scathing in their mockery of its location.”
Construction, however, was finished in record time and just a year later the nation was ready for its second attempt at a modern justice system. The municipal government stayed until the 1920s and the supreme court moved out in 1949, but the prison wasn’t going anywhere.
The odour of the past
Guðmundur Gíslason became director of Hegningarhúsið in 1985 and remained in charge until it closed its doors in 2016. He began working there during his summers as a university student in 1975 and he remembers the prison as a place that seemed to exist outside of time.
Prisoners were not made to bathe when they arrived and an overwhelming putrid odour of human waste and filth permeated the halls.
”Walking through the doors was like travelling back in time. The rooms had these wooden beds that wouldn’t have been longer than 1.6 metres, which meant that most men had to curl up in a ball to sleep,” says Guðmundur. “The cells had no toilets and prisoners weren’t allowed out at night, so they had to do their business in chamber pots.”
Prisoners were not made to bathe when they arrived and an overwhelming putrid odour of human waste and filth permeated the halls, according to Guðmundur. Little to no maintenance had been done in the century since the first prisoners arrived in 1875 and the building, along with the institutional culture therein, were in dire disrepair.
“You got a sense that this was how prisoners had done their time a hundred years ago,” says Guðmundur. “Prisoners were kept isolated in their cells for most of the day and all phone calls and visits were closely monitored by the guards.”
A prisoner’s penance
In Europe, the term “rehabilitation” was always closely related to Christian penance and this had carried over into Icelandic prison culture.
“There was still this sense that isolation was positive and this 19th century idea that a prisoner should spend his time alone with his God. There were no televisions or radios and the only books that were allowed were the Bible and other Christian writings,” Guðmundur recounts. “Even the newspapers were censored to make sure the prisoners weren’t exposed to hazardous materials, so all articles about violence or crime were cut out.”
Despite the crummy conditions, not everyone was adverse to spending nights in Steininn. Guðmundur explains that the majority of the prison’s population back then wasn’t actually made up of bonafide criminals, but rather the city’s more unfortunate souls
“During the winter months it was like a merry-go-round of the local drunks. They’d know what they needed to do to be imprisoned, so we’d lock them up for a couple of days. There they could sleep indoors, get a meal and stay warm and then they’d be released and be back on the street to repeat the process all over again.”
Around 1980, things began to change. The inauguration of homeless shelters meant that local drunks no longer had to depend on incarcerations for warmth. New leadership at the prison meant an improved selection of literature and diminishing fervour for isolation. But changes outside the prison bars were making work at Nían increasingly problematic.
Under party siege
In 1875, Skólavörðustígur was on the outskirts of Reykjavík, but as the years went by it found itself smack dab in the heart of downtown.
“In later years especially, the prison was surrounded by the country’s biggest party area, which made its existence a bit strange. Kaffibarinn is right next door and Ölstofan is built right into the courtyard wall. I’m sure it will have made the punishment more unbearable for some to be surrounded by all this partying.”
Proximity to nightlife also brought out a philanthropic streak in the local population.
“You would regularly get people throwing beer cans and other alcoholic beverages over the walls to ‘give the prisoners something to drink,’” says Guðmundur with a smile. “There would also be attempts at smuggling drugs in by chucking it into the courtyard.”
The increasing impracticality of its location, coupled with 200 years of neglect, meant that Hegningarhúsið’s role as a functioning prison became ever more untenable. Thus, on June 1, 2016, at 10:50 a.m. the last prisoner left his cell.
The future is unwritten
Today, Hegningarhúsið stands empty and since 2020 has been undergoing extensive renovations. The government organisation Minjavernd is in charge of the project and, according to their timeline, we are still years away from returning the building to a functional state.
“We are looking at two years minimum until we can expect work to finish,” says Minjavernd director Þorsteinn Bergsson. “What comes after that is undecided, but there is widespread agreement that Hegningarhúsið’s door will be open to the public.”
Among the ideas being floated is turning the cells into workspaces for artists and the bigger rooms into gallery spaces. Another is to open a bar or a concert venue in the courtyard and to have a museum of law and order on the second floor. The location that seven years ago made it impractical as a prison, makes its potential as a cultural venue priceless.
“Hegningarhúsið is on one of Iceland’s busiest and liveliest streets … and it surprises you when you realise just how sizable it and the courtyard are,” says Þorsteinn. “You can easily picture it becoming an oasis right in the heart of the city.”
In 2025, it will be 150 years since Hegningarhúsið locked up its first prisoner. It would befit its illustrious and somewhat infamous history to make that the year it sells its first criminally overpriced beer. God knows Reykjavík could use a better place for quiet penance than Hallgrímskirkja.
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