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Story Publication logo June 1, 2022

The Need For Rehabilitative Justice in Icelandic Prisons


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College of William & Mary students completed the 11th Sharp Writer-in-Residence Program, working...

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If you didn’t know Icelandic, you might pass the sign saying “Fangelsið Kvíabryggja,” and think the building was a farmhouse. It is a small, unfenced, cream-colored building in the Icelandic countryside, exactly like the other farmhouses, hotels, and restaurants that dot the landscape. However, one internet search later finds that it is, in fact, one of Iceland’s “open prisons.” 

These prisons lack fences or locks and require each resident to either earn an education or work. Two of the five Icelandic prisons are categorized as open prisons.  Icelandic prisons range from having 10 to 56 incarcerated people, and the open prisons have about 25 each, who all have less than two years on their sentence left.   

One can walk in through the front door without a metal detector or security screening in sight. It is regularly busy, with 20 or so people milling about. And if it weren’t for the security guard uniforms, it would be difficult to tell the guards and the incarcerated apart, they mingled like friends. The warden, the workers, and the incarcerated people are dressed in everyday clothes. 

Indeed, this prison feels as much like a tourist hostel as anything else. People wander in and out, attending to their jobs: working with the livestock, cooking, or at the workshop next door fixing machines for locals. More than one of the incarcerated says this prison changed their life.  Some say it’s because of the freedom to move around and go outside, others suggest it’s the close prison community.  

All of this is why, when Professor Francis Pakes, a criminology expert at the University of Portsmouth in England, asked officials if he could move into an Icelandic prison for a week, the Prison and Probation Administration agreed. “I think they have little to hide,” Pakes said. “I think they’re confident that they offer a decent environment” and they didn’t “have to worry that I would write negative things about what I saw.” 

But for one man, the humane appearance is not enough. 

Guðmundur Þóroddsson, or Gummi, as he is known by many, was formerly incarcerated at Kvíabryggja and is the founder of Iceland’s prison association, Afstaða. Since Afstaða’s founding in 2005, he has been pushing for reforms. In the past few years, there have been beneficial policy changes, such as more opportunities for community service and an ankle bracelet instead of prison time for short sentences. 

“I was in prison myself, for a long time, and I’ve been in this system so long that I can see so clearly what’s going on and what we need to do and change,” Þóroddsson said. “All the prisons are clean and good, but they’re missing all the content, the training and therapy.” 

His organization, which started off dedicated to arranging foosball and darts tournaments within the Kvíabryggja prison, has now evolved into an organization dedicated to holding the Icelandic justice system accountable to the rights of the incarcerated. It argues that even though open prisons lack bars and allow access to certain freedoms, they lack the true substance necessary for rehabilitation.

“We don’t have this system like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, or Finland. [People think] we have rehabilitation because you can go from a closed prison to an open prison and then an ankle bracelet,” Þóroddsson said. While Iceland seems to have the stepping stones necessary to reintegrate the formerly incarcerated back into society, the prison system lacks the funding to have sufficient therapy and career services that the Scandinavian countries have. 

The incarcerated  noted that when they reach out to prison authorities with complaints, they often receive no reply, until Afstaða steps in. Sometimes, families even reach out to Afstaða for help. 

“We work with families of prisoners, guiding them and making recommendations,” Þóroddsson said. Many families call us and say, ‘Hey, why can’t my son go to the dentist? He has had pain for three months now.’ So then we send an email to the prison officer and say ‘Why hasn’t he been able to go to the dentist?’And then the [authorities] usually send him the day after.” 

While most cases can be resolved in a couple of days or weeks, there is one kind of case Afstaða gets that can take months or even years: open cases.  These cases open once an individual goes to the police and charges someone for a violation of the Icelandic penal code or once the police start an investigation.  

These are cases reviewed by the police regarding the accused’s crime. However, in Iceland there are too many cases to handle. Some of the cases aren’t resolved until the sentence is over, which means that the incarcerated could stay in prison past the end of their sentence. It can prevent people from moving out of prison and to a community service and ankle monitor system. 

“They’re basically sentencing you to an extra punishment,” one of Afstaða’s lawyers, Sigrún Brynjarsdóttir, remarked. “Those who haven’t got an open case can, in most cases, get parole release after serving no more than two-thirds of their sentence.”  However, with an open case they have to serve the time fully in prison, unless the case closes before then.  

“It goes against our human rights as protected by our constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights to be considered innocent until proven guilty,” Brynjarsdóttir argued. “For example, one of my clients couldn’t get out on parole because he had an open case regarding minor possession of narcotics. After extreme pushing on my behalf they finally finished the case and he was fined.  He had to be incarcerated for an extra half-year because of this.”

Brynjarsdóttir said that people still believe “these are the bad guys, that these are prisoners and they deserve to be there, but people are finally opening their eyes to help them.” This small team has spearheaded that movement. 

“There was no voice for the prison population. With the prison union, you have people, not just in Afstaða, but in the grassroots [as well] who want to contribute to the cause,” Helgi Gunlaugsson, a leading Icelandic criminology professor, said. 

Now Þóroddsson and four other volunteers work in an office in downtown Reykjavík, hoping to hold the justice system accountable. This small team accounts for a myriad of actions, ranging from writing articles and educating the public, to visiting the prisons and contacting government officials when incarcerated people’s rights are violated. Brynjarsdóttir said that they try to visit the prisons at least once every few weeks in order to meet with the people  they are working with.

They volunteer their time in addition to having full-time jobs, and between them spend over 300 hours a month fighting for incarcerated people’s rights. In addition to his work at Afstaða, Þóroddsson works with Reykjavík City to help the homeless. 

“We have three or four people who work every day and night and even the weekends, but we are also working other jobs,” Þóroddsson said. “We have been doing this now for 16 years and we are getting tired, so we need to get something from the government so we can establish this for the future.” 

Þóroddsson and Brynjarsdóttir mentioned that oftentimes at the end of the year, the volunteers pitch in their own money in order to pay for the office space. They refuse to ask for money for fear that it could ruin their image. 

This is a constant concern when recruiting new members to Afstaða, as their statements and image have to be carefully curated for the public eye. 

“Everything goes through me,” Þóroddsson noted. “All the statements we send, all the articles we make, we make it together. We work on it together because everything that comes from us has to be perfect. It has to be so they have nothing to complain about or talk about. If we write one sentence wrong, everything goes crazy.” 

However, Þóroddsson is constantly meeting with the press, government officials, and graduate students writing on the topic. As Brynjarsdóttir notes, Þóroddsson will speak to anyone if there is even a chance that they could help the movement.  

Þóroddsson and his team believe that there is hope for substantive change in the prison system and that they can build upon the open prison system already in place. For it is true that, in Kvíabryggja at least, there is something special. Incarcerated people there, many of whom had served time in Icelandic closed prisons first, said that this prison was truly different. Even if the federal Prison and Probation Administration is unresponsive, the incarcerated  in Kviabryggja felt supported by the prison workers, warden, and security guards. 

Perhaps it’s because the security guards were former sailors, civic engineers, and social movement members. That, instead of being traditionally trained like in other countries, Icelandic prison guards have only a few weeks of training, which focus on empathy instead of surveillance. That every incarcerated person  has his favorite security guard and always walks in through the office’s front door to chat when the guard is on duty.

Perhaps it’s the small size and the fact that prison employees and the incarcerated all work together. 

Perhaps it’s something else entirely. 

Either way, the incarcerated in Kvíabryggja asserted that this prison changed their life for the better. One even began a substance support group in the prison for himself and others.  

Governmental change takes significant time, so as they await future reforms the men in Kviabryggja, with the help of Afstaða, are trying to help themselves. 

In the next few years, Afstaða hopes to start a halfway house and a center for the unemployed, formerly incarcerated to work and learn, and build an apartment building. 

“I don’t want to stop working here until this is done,” Þóroddsson said. “I’m trying to do it fast because I don’t want to do this forever, but I’m not going to let go.” However, Afstaða is hopeful they will be able to accomplish these goals in the next few years. A halfway house has been picked outside Reykjavík, and Afstaða hopes to rent it in the summer of 2022, and give positions to 35-40 formerly incarcerated individuals. 

While Þóroddsson said he understands that prison authorities may see the current overall system as great, "I know the open prison is the future." As he speaks with the next generation - students in the fields of the law, psychiatry and even the police - "I feel like we touch them a bit" and things will begin to change.


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