Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i News i News 2022 i The Faroe Islands: A country without prisons
The Faroe Islands: A country without prisons

The Faroe Islands: A country without prisons

| Text and photo: Rólant Waag Dam

If you are sentenced to more than 18 months in prison in the Faroe Islands, you will suffer the additional penalty of being sent to Denmark to serve your sentence. Because there are no prisons in the Faroe Islands.

The autonomous region has one detention centre, a temporary solution at some military barracks from the 1960s. A new prison would cost 233 million Danish kroner (€31.3m) but the Faroese authorities have only been granted one million.

The place is known as Mjørkadalur – Faroese for foggy valley. There is space for only 14 detainees, and the centre is high up in the mountains, 21 kilometres from the capital Tórshavn. It might sound like the perfect place to keep inmates. But it is not, something both prisoners and prison guards have known since the detention centre was moved from Tórshavn to Mjørkadalur in 2011. Faroese politicians have also taken an interest in recent years. 

Many millions not enough

“Mjørkadalur originally served as military barracks. It will never be a prison, even if we spent millions restoring it,” Heðin Askham, deputy leader for the Faroese probation service, told the public broadcaster Kringsvarp Føroya when they made a report about conditions in Mjørkadalur in November last year. Askham is a prison guard and has served for more than 40 years.

That same week, a report on detention conditions in the Faroe Islands was published. We will get back to that, but Askham’s statement mirrored much of what the report highlighted. It was built on a survey commissioned by Edmund Joensen, a Faroese member of the Danish parliament. Together with fellow MP Sjúrður Skaale, he has been busy highlighting the situation at Mjørkadalur, and they have been trying to secure more funding to improve conditions there. 

Snowed in for three days

Askham and the other Faroese prison guards are dreaming of a detention centre, an open prison and a closed prison. Preferably in Tórshavn and definitely not up in the mountains. That location has certain drawbacks, as highlighted in the Danish Prison Federation's magazine after a visit to Mjørkadalur in 2020.

“At one stage we were snowed in for three days. We finally almost ran out of food, and we ordered a helicopter for the change-over of guards,” prison guard Birgir Hansen told them.

The detention centre’s 14 cells are also too big, and this creates security challenges. It also means the cells are located across three floors, which bring further challenges. 

“If we have three arrests in one day, they cannot be placed on the same floor because the walls are so thin they can talk to each other through them. This means we have to spread them out over all the floors, and as a result, people who are serving prison sentences and people on remand are living side by side in Mjørkadalur,” Elkin Klettheyggj, head of the Faroese probation service, told the Breddin radio programme earlier.

More than 1,000 kilometres away

The poor physical conditions at the Faroese detention centre have led some to point out that people who have been sentenced to more than 18 months in prison will face additional punishment. They are sent to Denmark to serve, more than 1,000 kilometres away from home. This means family and friends wanting to visit must travel from the Faroe Islands to Denmark and back again. This takes time and it is expensive, so they too are being punished.

“I have a two-year-old girl who needs looking after. I must pay for a day or two off work, which is 1,000 kroner a day. Then I must buy a plane ticket, which might cost 3 to 4,000 kroner. So each visit could cost me 6 to 7,000 kroner (€940),” explained one mother of a Faroese prisoner in a Danish prison to the podcast “The Faroese prisoners”.  

And there are quite a few of them. According to the probation service, 22 detainees and prisoners were moved from the Faroe Islands to Denmark between 2011 and 2021. The numbers were published after Sjúrður Skaale asked the Danish justice minister for them last summer.

“The main purpose of the probation service must be that people who are sentenced for a crime should not do another crime when they are released, but become good citizens again. That is very difficult to achieve if you ship them abroad to a foreign environment where the only chance they have to form new bonds is with other prisoners,” Sjúrður Skaale said at the time.

The news site also wrote that this is an expensive solution, as two police officers usually have to escort the prisoner to Denmark at a cost of 10 to 12,000 kroner each time.

A new 234 million kroner prison 

There is broad agreement in the Faroe Islands that a new prison is needed. When the Faroese parliament last opened, the Prime Minister’s speech touched on the issue of a Faroese prison, or the lack thereof.  

“We must improve prison conditions in the Faroe Islands. They are not satisfactory. We need a modern prison where people get the chance to develop and get an education. I think the best solution is to build a new prison,” said Bárður á Steig Nielsen, the Faroese Prime Minister.

But a new prison will cost 233 million kroner (€31.3m), according to the above-mentioned report on detention and prison conditions in the Faroe Islands, which was written by Faroese and Danish civil servants.

This solution, which the report calls “Establishing a new institution”, is the only model that solves all the challenges around Mjørkadalur facing the probation service today. This solution is basically a new prison in a new location. But for now, this is not going to happen.

One million for improvements

The Faroe Islands have in recent years been given more and more autonomy from Denmark but has yet to gain the responsibility for its judicial system and with that, the prison system. 

So for now, it is the Danish parliament that must grant money for a new prison in the Faroe Islands. Just before Christmas, the Danish Minister of Justice Nick Hækkerup, announced a long-term plan to spend four billion kroner on the probation service between 2022 and 2025. On 14 January, he told MPs from the Faroe Islands, which was not part of this spending plan, that one million kroner have been set aside to improve Mjørkadalur.

“I just have to say it as it is. This is not good,” Skaale told Faroese radio after his meeting with the minister. Joensen, who was also present in that meeting, agreed. He does, however, think that the survey about conditions at Mjørkadalur (which he contributed to) has served a purpose.

“Perhaps the Danish authorities now realise what we have known all this time. The conditions are not fit for purpose. A new prison is needed, and it is only a question of time before money will be set aside for the project,” he said.

Sheep in heat

And there might be light at the end of the tunnel. In 2016, one of Faroese police’s big challenges was the six annual weapons training sessions their officers must attend. This is what the Danish police wrote about it on their website:

“Faroese police pay to use a sheep farmers’ land to shoot in a deserted area, since the police themselves do not have access to a shooting range. But the weather is often so poor that the shooting must be cancelled. Or the sheep are in heat, and shooting is out of the question.”

Back then, the police officers dared not dream of a shooting range. Today it is being built – although at a lower cost than 233 million kroner.


Receive Nordic Labour Journal's newsletter nine times a year. It's free.

This is themeComment