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Solitary Confinement: a Threat to Denmark’s Credibility


"You can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners"
- Winston Churchill

Although Danish society often sees itself as an ideal community with a competent state that protects the downtrodden, this vision has been tainted by injustices in the Danish penal system. Together with a group of American students visiting Vestre Fængsel, a Danish prison, we discovered this one bright June day.

At first, some could not believe that Danish prisoners had more resources than many free Americans, including clean housing, healthy food, and even PlayStations. They were bewildered to learn that while most prison guards did not carry weapons, Danish prisoners could borrow knives, scissors, and needles. The picture that emerged at first was that of a benevolent prison system, focused on rehabilitation rather than retribution.

However, when the Americans met with a group of Danish prisoners, the prisoners did not mention the generous visitation policies or the table tennis but rather, the lack of transparency in the Danish penal system. This raised for us the question of whether the apparently comfortable living conditions were obscuring the lack of civil and political rights for many of these prisoners. This injustice is perhaps most obvious in the use of solitary confinement, which discredits the image of Denmark as an ideal haven for human rights.

The problematic use of solitary confinement in Denmark comes in two forms. First, there is solitary confinement prior to the judge’s sentence, which has been controversial since innocent people can be held in solitude for a long time. Nevertheless, prisoners are still allowed access to periodic judicial hearings to determine whether they should remain in isolation. In the face of continued criticism, a 2006 law was passed establishing a maximum of 8 weeks of pre-trial isolation, representing an improvement in this area.

However, this recent legislation should not obscure the more problematic version of this policy –the practice of post-trial solitary confinement in Danish prisons once an individual has been convicted. This decision is made not by a judge but by the prison guards themselves, often as a form of punishment.

A 2002 law on post-trial confinement eliminated prisoners’ access to files about their case, meaning that prisoners were no longer legally entitled to know the reasons that they were placed in isolation. Since then, there have been a number of cases of prisoners kept in solitude for over a year, without knowing why. Unlike pre-trial isolation, post-trial isolation is not subject to rules governing time limits, access to files, and judicial oversight. In short, it constitutes a monumental injustice in the Danish penal system.

Despite this, a representative for Tom Behnke, legal spokesperson for the Konservative Folkesparti currently in the governing coalition, believed the government had found “suitable balance in the rules” and thus had “no specific plans on changing the rules.”

If the government says this situation is OK, then this article is extremely necessary.

Claus Bonnez, the director of KRIM, an organization that advocates for the rights of prisoners, believes that “not many years ago, Denmark was very much ahead of other countries in terms of the way we treat prisoners.” That is no longer the case. Now, Bonnez is preparing to challenge Denmark by taking new cases to the European Court of Human Rights against “because we think we will win.”

If Denmark were to lose a case at the Court of Human Rights, which Bonnez says is an eventual certainty, its influence on international debates would be severely compromised, and its credibility and effectiveness as a figurehead in the fight for human rights diminished.

The use of isolation in the Danish penal system has already been criticized by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture in a report last year. According to Tyge Lehmann, former representative ofr Denmark for the UN Commission on Human Rights, lack of attention to these problems could indeed lead nations to criticize Denmark’s hypocrisy in future discussions on human rights issues.

Given all of these considerations, the Danish government must take action immediately to respond to international criticism regarding the rights of prisoners in Denmark. Optimal material conditions should not represent an excuse for the lack of civil and political rights. If we really wish Denmark to be an example for the world when it comes to human rights, we must reconsider the way we treat our prisoners.

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Denmark Denmark 2010


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