Humane prison to bring Greenland's most dangerous criminals home

Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT) March 17, 2018

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Story highlights

  • Greenland's capital Nuuk is getting a stylish new prison
  • Humane prisons are controversial, with some questioning whether criminals should live in beautiful buildings
  • Greenland's serious offenders, currently exiled in Denmark, are returning home

(CNN)Nestled into the stunning Arctic landscape with panoramic views of sparkling fjords and snowy mountains, Ny Anstalt could easily be mistaken for a luxury ski lodge. But this stylish complex in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is actually a prison.

As any onlooker can deduce, when it opens in 2019 it will not be a normal penitentiary. It will be a "humane prison" -- a correctional facility that emphasizes rehabilitating criminals through positive design, rather than punishment.
Exponents of the "humane prison" philosophy believe that if prisons mimic the conditions of normal life, as far as is possible, offenders have a greater chance of successful reintegration into society, and less chance of re-offending.
Ny Anstalt, however, is more than an architectural accomplishment for the country. It hopes to end a human rights issue that has haunted the island nation for decades.

Arctic architecture

Nuuk is located near the southern tip of Greenland, a former Danish colony that straddles the Arctic circle. With only 56,000 residents, it is the least-densely populated country in the world.
Across this unfenced wilderness there are just six prisons with a collective capacity for 154 prisoners. Greenland runs a uniquely "open" prison system, with many inmates allowed to leave the premises to work, study, or even go hunting, before returning at night. As a consequence, none of the existing penitentiaries can accommodate high-security inmates, and this has long presented Greenland with a problem.
Many Nordic countries have famously low crime rates: in Iceland, for example, there were only three homicides in 2015, according to European Union statistics. But in Greenland, the proportion of citizens sent to prison is about three times higher than in the rest of the Nordic region, according to the Danish Prison and Probation Service.
Greenland's crime problem can be traced back to reforms instigated after the second world war. About 88% of the country's population are indigenous Inuit people -- the remaining 12% are mostly of Danish descent.
    In the 1950s, the Danish government introduced sweeping changes, aimed at moving people into urban centers, giving them access to welfare services and reducing reliance on dwindling seal populations. But the dismantling of a traditional hunting and fishing society provoked social problems. "Greenlandic people suffer from similar difficulties to other indigenous groups who have experienced colonization," says Naaja Nathanielsen, director of the Greenland Prison and Probation Service. "Alcohol is often involved in crime and contributes to the relatively high crime rate."
    Without a suitable facility, since the 1960s, Greenland has sent its most dangerous -- and mentally ill -- inmates to Herstedvester, outside the Danish capital Copenhagen, says Erik Bang, head of the construction unit at the Danish Prison and Probation Service. This has created issues as many speak Greenlandic (an Inuit language) rather than Danish so can't communicate with the guards, and it's impossible for most to receive visits from their families.
    When Ny Anstalt opens, Nuuk's current prison, which was built in the 1960s, will close and its inmates will be transferred to the new facility. "The practice of sending Greenlandic prisoners to Denmark will end," says Nathanielsen, adding that the 30 or so prisoners currently incarcerated in exile will be offered the chance to return to their home country. She says the new prison is long overdue. "Exiling people to serve their sentence in another country, with another language and culture, is very harsh."

    A small village

    In 2013, Denmark's Prison and Probation Service, which administers the prison system in Greenland, launched a competition to design Nuuk's new jail. A team that includes two Danish architecture firms -- Friis & Moltke and Schmidt Hammer Lassen -- beat five rivals to win the contract.
    The architects say they embraced Ny Anstalt as an opportunity to help address Greenland's deep-rooted social problems. "Learning about the prisoners and thinking about what conditions brought them to this situation has affected me deeply," says project manager Jette Birkeskov Mogensen. "Providing them with a good environment for their imprisonment is a big responsibility."
    Thomas Ruus Christensen, Ny Anstalt's lead design architect, says that the prison -- which has won a World Architecture News Award -- is "designed to operate like a small village with residential blocks, workplaces, education and sports facilities, a library, a health center and a church."
      The 86,000 square foot (8,000 square meter) facility will have 76 cells, 40 of which will be "closed" for maximum security prisoners, while 36 will be "open" for those allowed greater degrees of freedom. Prisoners who have earned the privilege will be allowed to travel into Nuuk to work and earn a wage, before returning to the prison at night.
      The private cells are only 130 square feet (12 square meters) but are positioned to look across to Sermitsiaq, a towering mountain on an offshore island, and their windows don't have bars. Christensen says this wild outlook was a design priority. "You can't escape the prison because it's surrounded by a big wall, but you can look at the view and escape in your mind -- and that's important," says Christensen.
      Although the prison is a modern building, Ny Anstalt will be decorated with traditional Greenland flourishes. "There's a very distinctive artistic language in Greenland," says Christensen. "We're bringing in local artists to decorate communal areas with landscape paintings and traditional designs, and carve etchings of animals into the perimeter wall."
      Design has even been used to manage security at the facility. "The prison is designed over three levels which allows the guards to manage the flow of people between different areas, and control which prisoners encounter each other," explains Mogenson. This reduces the possibility of violence.
      "The guards don't need to carry weapons, and can develop better relationships with the prisoners, which is essential to the concept of rehabilitation," she adds.

      Do humane prisons work?

        Scandinavian countries have pioneered humane prison design because "their societies are characterized by a strong welfare state and relatively high levels of trust," according to Yvonne Jewkes, a professor of criminology at the UK's University of Kent.
        "There's also an ancient idea (in Scandanavia) that beauty has a civilizing influence," says Jewkes. "Whether it's a coffee cup or a prison, Danish design is always stylish. In prison design, this means light, airy, non-institutional spaces."
        In 2010, a new gold standard for this type of prison was set by a Halden, a 227-inmate, high security, Norwegian penitentiary, often cited as the "model" humane prison. Its facilities include a gym, a rock-climbing wall, jogging trails, a soccer field, a library, a music studio, a dental clinic, and a Family House where prisoners can stay overnight with their partners and children. In 2010, it won the Arnstein Arneberg Award for interior design, although it has also been criticized for being too liberal.
        A humanely designed prison, says Jewkes, can help to foster a sense of purpose, citizenship and hope for the future, which is important because "at some point, the vast majority of prisoners are going to be released."
        The statistics seem to back her up. "A number of studies indicate that reoffending rates are relatively low in Scandinavian countries -- often less than 30%," says Jewkes.
        Rates appear to be much higher in the US and UK. A study by the US Bureau of Justice, which tracked prisoners from 30 states after their release from prison in 2005, found that within five years over three quarters (76.6%) had been rearrested. In the UK, government reporting from 2015 revealed that 44% of adults are reconvicted within a year of their release.
          Jewkes cautions that it is notoriously difficult to make direct comparisons. "Each country's legal system is different, methods of counting and evaluation vary ... and there have not been many long-term studies." But she also notes that "it's a matter of common sense that the values embedded in a custodial environment will be embodied by ex-offenders when they are released and re-enter society."
          In the UK, "prisons are like human warehouses, designed to be tools of retribution," says Jewkes. "Ugly, depressing environments like these breed anger and resentment, and can promote drug use, mental illness, self-harm and suicide."
          Alan Pritchard, a British former prison governor who now works as a private consultant on criminal justice matters, says that humane prison design works in Scandinavia because "attitudes to incarceration are much more liberal."
          "I don't think beautiful, architect-designed prisons would be palatable to either the government or the public in the UK," he adds.

          Size matters

          The other thing that sets apart Scandinavian prison design is size.
          Prisons that look like boutique hotels typically house no more than 250 inmates. In Scandinavia, where small population sizes combine with low rates of incarceration, there are not that many people to detain -- Denmark has just 3,400 prisoners; Norway has around 4,000. Both countries have populations of just over 5 million. In England and Wales (Scotland operates as a separate jurisdiction), where the population is 10 times larger, around 85,000 people are kept behind bars.
          Two new British prisons -- HMP Oakwood and HMP Berwyn -- can house 2,106 prisoners each, and there are plans for more "supersize" jails that hold over 1,000 prisoners. Pritchard says that although both the new prisons have education and employment training facilities, their design incorporates heavy security. "With all the gates, barriers, and fences, these prisons don't effectively support a rehabilitative culture," says Pritchard.

          The bottom line

          Humane prisons are seen as prohibitively expensive. Running Norways's Halden prison costs $150,000 per prisoner per year, according to the Norwegian Correctional Service. Pritchard says the current average annual cost per prisoner in England and Wales is $50,000, while HMP Berwyn -- which benefits from economies of scale -- will operate at around $20,000. "Accommodating 85,000 inmates in multiple small units is not economically viable," he says.
          Ny Anstalt's running costs have not yet been finalized. "No doubt it will increase the current budget, but in terms of the human factor it is very much worth the expense," says Nathanielsen.
          For those with shorter term sentences, she believes Ny Anstalt offers a greater chance of successful rehabilitation. "We live in small communities in Greenland, and eventually the inmates have to return to those communities. For that to be successful, and to prevent future crime, we strive to promote change in each individual. In that regard, humane design absolutely makes sense."