Open Prison


With a tiny population of less than 60,000 - Greenland is a country where everyone knows everyone else, in such a tight knit community, sending criminals to jail creates unique problems and the locals have responded with a unique solution. Nick Lazaredes reports from Greenland's largest prison where razor wire and guard posts are nowhere to be seen.



REPORTER:  Nick Lazaredes



Each morning as cells are unlocked, inmates are greeted politely. Here, courtesy and respect are deemed paramount. Waiting for them, a breakfast table where inmates help themselves to a selection of brewed coffee, meat, yoghurt and pastries. It's shortly after 7 and soon many of them will venture beyond the prison walls.


REPORTER:  I see that some doors are locked, some doors aren't, so what's normally the rule?


CARSTENS BRODGAARD, SUPERINTENDENT:  Normally all doors have to be locked. I learned that in Denmark, every door you go to, lock the door after you, but, this prison is like an open prison.


Greenland's remarkable open prison is a place where the rule-book has been turned on its head and nothing is as it seems.


REPORTER:  So inmates have their own key to their cell?




REPORTER:    That would seem rather unusual.


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:  Yes, but they have their privacy.


Prisoners' privacy is just one of the elements that make Greenland's penal system so radically different, pushing way past the traditional jailhouse boundaries.


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:   In here we have our rifle and it's not rifles for the guards, it's for the inmate.


REPORTER:  Seriously?


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:  Of course I'm serious.


REPORTER:  Of course you are.


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:  Yes, inmates can go hunting together with guards. Earlier, we had a boat and we was on the water shooting birds and seals.


In most societies, giving prisoners access to weapons would be considered unthinkable. But here, the policy has existed for decades without a hitch all based on trust.


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:   We are a Danish institution, Danish Government justice department, and then we have to with the Danish flag, that's why..


Despite Greenland having home rule since 1979, the Danish Government has retained control of the prison system, which it operates under completely different guidelines to those in Denmark. Here, guards act more like mentors than enforcers.


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:   You see here, quiet and easy they play chess - The guards and the inmates together. That can't happen in Denmark, because the relationship between guards and inmates is...


REPORTER:    Strained.




With almost 60 male and female inmates serving time here for crimes ranging from theft to multiple murder, there are rules, but even the ultimate breach - escape is barely punished.


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:   When an inmate is escaping, I would say 1 or 2 days he is back. Either the police will arrest him, or he comes by himself - knocking at the door saying, "Hello, I'm back", maybe just for fun, and maybe to see some of his friends. And we say hello, and put them in 7 days isolation. They know the rules.   That's a prison building as well, the top of the building is inmates, and down, I live, that's my apartment.


REPORTER:  That's where you live?


Despite Carsten Brodgaard's lenient approach, clearly not everyone is happy.


REPORTER:  So how did this happen?




REPORTER:  Did somebody do this on purpose, or...?


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:   I think so. My theory is that and inmate has called one of his friends, outside, and they are coming here with an iron bar, and they have crashed the windows.


REPORTER:  For what reason?


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:   The system. As I told you earlier, I'm representing the system.


But for most inmates the system is working just fine. During the day they have permission to leave the prison for work or study. 23-year-old Zakorat Zeeb is especially grateful he's been granted the privilege of leaving the prison during the day. This is the second time he's been sent to jail.


ZAKORAT ZEED, INMATE (Translation):  I think it was 2006 or 2007 - I was imprisoned for the first time. At that time I was violent to my friend who was abusive to his girlfriend. I kicked him because I didn’t like it.  Now I’m in for kicking my boss in a bar.


Zakorat has been studying carpentry at college as well as working full time as a painter.    New prisoners are usually kept locked up for the first few months of their sentence. But once a week they're allowed out to go hiking in the mountains near Greenland's capital, Nuuk.


JACK, PRISON GUARD:  They are not always what you call it, well behaving, so sometimes you have to be like a parent. But that's, normally we have fun and go fishing, and climb the hills, and just enjoy it.


When we stop for lunch, overlooking the fjord, I lend the inmates my camera so they can conduct their own interviews.


INMATE:   What's your name, what's your name?


ARNE:  Arne.


INMATE:   Why you in prison?


ARNE:  I steal.


INMATE:  What do you steal?


ARNE:   Play station. Games, yeah games. I sell.


INMATE:  And after you sell that?


ARNE:  Money. Smoke. Smoke hashish.


Giving prisoners the right to day release relies largely on trust, and to ensure that isn't misplaced, control checks are performed often and at random. Regularly strip-searched, prisoners are also randomly tested for alcohol and the major drug of choice in Greenland hashish.


CARSTENS BRODGAARD:   And if it's positive for drugs, they lose their privileges to go work or visit family in a period.


Day-to-day disciplinary matters are usually left to the deputy superintendent, Anders Josefesen. A random search of a prisoner's cell has uncovered an unauthorized ATM card and paraphernalia usually associated with smoking hashish.  Anders Josefsen would like a harder, more punitive system. He says Greenland's open prison has outlived its original purpose.


ANDERS JOSEFSEN, DEPUTY SUPERINTENDENT (Translation):  The system was launched in the 50s and 60s.  If local fishermen and hunters were convicted of criminal actions and sent to prison, their families couldn’t survive. The men were supporting their wives and children.

The system focuses on the interests of the inmates, not of the... the people who have been wronged - the victims.


At the afternoon shift change, prison officers are called to an urgent meeting to discuss another problem.  Danish prison officer, Pil, here on a one month secondment from Copenhagen, says the close relationship between guards and inmates takes some getting used to.


PIL, PRISON OFFICER:  Normally, you don't get so close to the inmates. You don't, in Denmark, but here, you have to it's a big country, and a small society they are going to meet the prisoners, outside the walls. It could be your cousin, you could be a close related to the inmates here so they are very warm with the inmates.


But for Deputy Superintendent Anders, the intimate system is inappropriate for Greenland's new generation of savvy young criminals.


ANDERS JOSEFSEN (Translation):  The system doesn’t work for our young criminals. They need a different structure, if they are to integrate into society afterwards.  The structure needs to be clear on both sides of the fence…  The people in high places talk about re-socialisation.   But we cannot do that without the support of society as a whole.


HEIDI MOELLER, JOURNALIST:  I have heard many times from victims saying, "I just met the man who raped me, I'm shocked, I don't know what to do".


For many years journalist Heidi Moeller reported impartially on Greenland's unique approach to punishment. But when her 2 young daughters were molested by their grandfather, she was forced to confront what would happen after he was sent to prison.


HEIDI MOELLER:   They felt a kind of relief at the beginning, but then the thoughts about meeting him oops, are we going to see him? First on the street, or when he comes out of jail, and on the weekends when he's not there, how are we going to react? That was some of the questions that came, but the day that they met him and the days they meet him and still 5 years after they could call me, and say, "Mama, I just saw him, I don't know what to do. What should I do? He looked at me, I looked at him’, the fear, everything is being ripped up again.


As their grandfather was only locked-up at night, Heidi's daughters encountered him frequently on the streets of Nuuk, with a devastating psychological impact.


HEIDI MOELLER:   Societies here are very small. Everybody here knows what you've been doing, and if you molest children, or rape one, everybody knows what you did and you get some kind of you freeze them out.


For all the freedoms the open system offers, each night at 9:00pm all inmates are abruptly made aware of their situation.  As Greenlanders shift away from the traditional prison system, the survival of these unique social experiment has become uncertain. Construction will soon begin on a new, maximum security prison, where locked doors will be the order of the day.



















Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen

© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more info see our Cookies Policy