From Iceland — The Village People: Learning about life in and out of Hólmsheiði prison

The Village People: Learning about life in and out of Hólmsheiði prison

Published April 21, 2023

The Village People: Learning about life in and out of Hólmsheiði prison
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Words: Brynja Steinunn Helgesson Danielsen

The Village People is a series of micro-interviews with the people who make life in Reykjavík better. 

Name: Ari Hjálmarsson

Occupation: Prison guard at Hólmsheiði prison

Before the interview begins, Ari gives Krakkaveldi’s journokid a tour of the prison. Journokid initially thinks the prison looks a bit like a hotel. It isn’t like that at all though, because the prisoners cook for themselves and do their laundry in the prison. 

“That’s a part of the rehabilitation here because we want them to do things on their own, cook and things like that, feel responsible for themselves,” Ari explains. “They also want that. They’d rather choose what they eat.” 

Ari shows us a facility where the prisoners can study at the Secondary School of South Iceland (FSU), as he says many of them want and need an education, some are even illiterate when they come to Hólmsheiði. Events, like mass and yoga classes, are scheduled at the prison library. Prisoners also get access to a doctor twice a week, therapists and social workers. Ari previously worked at the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Department and says he gets heartbroken when he sees some of the kids he worked with there show up at the prison. 

“Before we start the interview, you have to promise me one thing,” Ari demanded. “This is the last time you’ll come in here.”

“Not unless I’m doing another interview!” I replied.

“OK,” he conceded.  “That’s the only situation I’d be alright with having you here again.”

Why did you decide to work as a prison guard?

I was always interested in this job and read about imprisonment when I was studying social work. Afterwards, when I finished my studies, I saw this advertised and decided to apply. 

What’s it like working in a place like this?

It’s fun and diverse, as no day is the same in a job like this. 

Photo by Art Bicnick

Does the prison have good food?

It’s sometimes good, sometimes bad. Today, it was good. 

How does this job affect your life?

You become more patient, because you need to show a lot of patience here. When people enter the prison, it’s usually the worst time in their life. That’s probably the most important aspect of this job — being patient and present for the inmates. 

How does this job affect your mental health?

You need to learn to not take it home with you. That can sometimes be difficult. We have a program for the employees to meet a therapist. 

What do you do around Christmas and Easter?

We celebrate holidays. At Christmas, we try to keep things festive. The inmates receive an extra subsidy to have their meal a bit nicer. It can be very difficult for inmates to not be able to see their family and friends — nobody wants to be in here. Sometimes, it’s said that the jails in Iceland are fancy. You hear people saying, “It’s like being in a hotel.” But I don’t know anyone who would want to stay in a hotel room for years and be forced to stay there.

Photo by Art Bicnick

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