Jan-Erik Sandlie, Deputy Director-General of Norwegian Correctional Services
What is the current situation regarding Covid-19 in the Norwegian prisons?
We are seeing that the numbers of covid-19 cases are on the decline, and that we have very few incidents at the moment. We are constantly monitoring the situation on how it`s evolving within the prisons and at our probation services but also in society in general. We try to be as flexible as possible, and gradually opening up more depending on where in the country the prison is. However, we are also preparing and planning for new potential outbreaks as a precaution.
What were the biggest challenges you had to face since the crisis began in March?
In the beginning all the “unknowns” and the uncertainty were very difficult and demanded a lot from the entire organization. We did not know the potential danger of the virus at the time, and how serious it could get, and how it would affect us. We had to plan with a large number of “worst case”-scenarios that would be incredibly hard to address. We also had to make huge changes to our prisons and at the offices for our probation services in a very short amount of time. New routines, plans, crisis management, plan for staffing and limiting activities for the inmates, were just some of the changes we implemented.
Which of the measures did you introduce you would consider as the most important ones for keeping staff and prisoners safe?
Our first, and most important, decision in the first period of the pandemic was to reduce the number of inmates in all our prisons and facilities. We also made sure everyone had their own cell. We also pushed forward the release date for many inmates that were set for release in the near future.
We also chose to increase the number of inmates that could serve the remainder of their time from home with an electronic monitoring. This gave us more room and capacity in the prisons to be prepared for what might come. We decided very early to stop visits to the inmates, and visits to the prisons in general was kept to an absolute minimum
Another important measure was the purchase of over 700 iPads to our prison facilities. They were used as a videophone as a substitute for the closed visits.
We also gave the inmates free phone time with their loved ones, more TV-channels in their cells and in some cases they also got extra fruits and snacks. We did this so that the inmates knew we saw that they were going through a rough time, and this was at least an attempt to make thing a little easier. An open and honest dialogue with the inmates about the situation and how thing are developing has also been important.
All of this combined has made a tough year little bit easier. We have had no riots or extra “trouble” as a result of the pandemic. So it’s only fair that we`ve thanked the inmates for their patience and understanding.
Is there anything you are doing different now compared to the start of the crisis in March?
As time went on, when both we and the rest of society learned more about the virus, we started to implement little changes to slowly go back to normal.
We have allowed visits to inmates again, but with some restrictions. We`ve also organized ourselves in a way that inmates are not locked down as much as they used to be when it comes to quarantine-time on arrival. Our crisis-management plans has also been properly tested and revised, so we are better prepared if an outbreak is to occur in one of our facilities. The “abnormal” has become the “new normal”, and we are now more focused on doing our daily duties despite the pandemic.
Do you expect that any of the changes made to the prison regime that were introduced in the past months will stay after the crisis?
Absolutely! The iPads is a great example. They have worked out great, and have a lot of potential going forward.
We will most likely also increase the use of electronic monitoring. The feedback we`ve gotten has been very positive, and is something we will look more into.
If at all, is there anything positive that you take out of the crisis? Any positive learning for you as a Deputy Director General and/or for the Norwegian Prison Service as a whole?
I`ve already mentioned the ipads as something positive that we will continue to use. Another thing is that the pandemic has forced us to think differently in a number of areas. Less traveling, video-meetings and many working from home, has worked better than expected, and is something we would probably have spent years trying to implement if not for the pandemic.
I am also very impressed over how all employees in the correctional services has performed their duties during a long and stressful time. We had expected more trouble and problems then we`ve seen, and that because of them.
How important was sharing of international experiences for you during the crisis? Any particular information or practice from other countries that was valuable for you during the crisis?
Many countries we work with have different issues than us. Overcrowding, too few employees and dormitories. This is not a good combination for dealing with the pandemic. Although legislation and jurisdiction differ from country to country, It is the Nordic countries and Western Europe that we should compare ourselves with in relation to Covid-19. Europris has been clear in sharing information about the pandemic and its consequences in the various member states. It has given us a picture of our own handling of various dilemmas. It has been shown that many of the measures taken, regardless of which country have been almost the same – but with different results. TEAMS / Skype and other digital platforms have made it possible to share knowledge and experience in a good way.
Any other personal remarks that you would like to make?
I hope that we are now seeing the end of the pandemic, and it looks like we in the Norwegian correction service has managed to come through it alright. That is something to be proud of. Personally, I am looking forward to be able to travel again, especially in the southern parts of Europe. It`s been a long cold year here in the north.
Supported by the Justice Programme of the European Union