by Cei Willis
Last Wednesday, I visited Denmark's Institution of Herstedvester, an exceptionally bleak closed prison just outside Copenhagen. I was there to meet Michael, a serial rapist who's one of about 20 Greenlandic inmates – all of whom are in need of psychological treatment – who have been shipped to Denmark to serve indefinite sentences for murder, rape or paedophilia. Michael was up for his yearly hearing, so I thought it would be a good time to visit and see how the Danish correctional system treats the inmates imported from its former colony.
Michael isn't serving his time in his home country because he can't; Greenland's penal system isn't equipped to handle mentally ill convicts. Due to a lack of funding, the country has been unable to build any sort of high security facility that's fit to provide adequate criminal psychiatric care, and the few operational prisons are all either open or semi-open, mostly incarcerating perps by night and allowing them to travel freely during the day.
Inmates in Greenland are also allowed to work and can even go hunting, as long as they stay out of the local pub. That said, it's not like prison guards haven't had to spend the odd afternoon rounding up shit-faced prisoners before hauling them all back to their cells. Clearly, this isn't that suitable an environment for a serial rapist with psychiatric issues, so even though Michael was convicted in Greenland, he had to be shipped to Denmark.
His attorney and I sat next to him in an IKEA-furnished room that looked a bit like a deserted school canteen, covered in old napkins and salt and pepper shakers. We watched as Michael was given his chance to get out of Herstedvester – a Skype call with a judge and a prosecutor who were sat over 2,000 miles away in Nuuk, Greenland.
It was almost impossible to make out facial expressions or body language; the judge and the prosecutor on the other end of the call must have had a hard time figuring out whether Michael was actually being sincere or not. The sound quality was also lacking, making the Danish statements read by the Greenlandic police representative next to inaudible.
"You couldn't understand him either, could you?" the attorney asked me. Luckily, he had transcripts.
Considering Herstedvester is full of high security prisoners – including Denmark's most infamous serial killer, Peter Lundin – Michael's hearings rarely end up happening on time. It's the infrequency of these hearings, as well as the Greenland's total lack of therapy, that have basically caused Michael's sentence to be indefinite – not that he seems eager to get out too soon; at one point during the hearing, he beat his chest and screamed that he doesn't want to be released until "the evil stuff in here is gone".
by Grace Pelham-Dann
His attorney Thorkild Høyer mentioned that the promised added treatment for substance abuse also hadn't been set in motion yet. Many (if not all) of the Greenlandic offenders suffer from alcoholism, and are last in line when it comes to the rehab options Denmark rolls out as standard for its native criminals.
Having already spent four years in Herstedvester, it looks like Michael's only chance of making it back to his home country is to wait for the completion of the new prison currently being built in Nuuk, which will be Greenland's first ever full security facility. The prison is scheduled for completion in 2017 and set to house all 20 of the inmates currently serving time in Denmark.
There, they've been promised the sort of care that Denmark was supposedly going to offer them. However, the project has already been delayed several times, and Michael's attorney told me that he's been aware of the supposed build since he first got into law.
It's hard to muster any kind of sympathy for these guys, but it's obvious that being forced to serve your sentence in a foreign country isn't an ideal scenario, and could arguably be detrimental to recovery. The inmates can't see their families (a basic right widely regarded as a cornerstone of any mentally unstable person's recovery) or communicate properly with their guards because of language difficulties. According to Thorkild, the Danish facility isn't particularly enthused at the thought of taking responsibility for releasing these convicts, either – worrying that some of them might end up relapsing in Denmark. And Greenlandic mass murderers and serial rapists aren't really a primary concern of the Danish authorities, so they're often just ignored and left to rot in jail.
Punishment by banishing isn't new to Greenland. Back in olden times, if you were no longer of use to your small-town community, you could risk being "put out on the ice" – meaning they would literally place you out on a piece of free-floating ice and let you drift into oblivion.
"That same feeling is still very much alive in Greenland, with many of the convicts serving time in Denmark feeling somewhat shunned back home," Michael's attorney told me as we were leaving the prison. Between that attitude and the shoddy internet hearings, releases are rare. And of the lucky few, "Most choose to stay in Denmark with their Greenlandic network long gone."
However, with Michael, things could be different. With the completion of Greenland's first maximum-security facility set for 2017, there's a good chance that he could return to his homeland to receive the psychiatric care he desperately needs.