Fewer inmates will not mean prison closures in Estonia just yet

Tallinn Prison.
Tallinn Prison. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Last week, the number of inmates in Estonian prisons fell below 2,000 for the first time since the restoration of independence, providing the prison service with the opportunity to place prisoners in individual cells. The Estonian Ministry of Justice says it has no plans as yet to close any prisons in order to save costs.

Head of the Estonian prison service Rait Kuuse told ERR, that the idea has been raised of closing one of the three prisons currently operating in Estonia. However, the process is not that simple.

"It is extremely easy to close something but it is difficult to then reopen it. If we want, for example, for inmates be able to serve their prison sentences as close as possible to their place of residence and for families to be able to visit their loved ones easily, then all the activities cannot only be concentrated in Tallinn. At the moment, of course, that's not the case nor a possibility," Kuuse explained.

While there are now fewer than 2,000 prisoners in Estonia, there are a total of over 3,000 places for inmates in the country's prisons.

Tallinn Prison has a capacity of 1,190, including 102 places in its open prison. There are 974 places in Viru Prison and 933 in Tartu Prison. Viru Prison also has 75 open prison spaces, with a further 60 in Tartu Prison.

Kuuse added, that if the number of inmates decreases further in the future, fewer prison cells will indeed be needed. However, there is currently no talk of closing the prisons in Tallinn, Viru or Tartu.

"We are also quite large employers in the regions, and the state has to preserve jobs outside the capital as well. In Tartu and Jõhvi, we additionally provide a detention center solution for the police, which is a 24/7 service that also has to be maintained in the area. There also has to be the possibility of an open prison in the region, which for many is an important stage before release," said Kuuse.

Estonian Minister of Justice Kalle Laanet (Reform) told ERR, that the ministry has tasked the prison service with developing a new concept outlining ways to save taxpayers' money by making the reintegration of inmates into society cheaper and more purposeful.

Laanet added, that the prison service is expected to submit its proposals regarding this to the ministry in the fall.

"We have to look at the matter as a whole. This closing of prisons is only one possible solution. The other half of the discussion is how we can achieve our goals," said the minister. Laanet added, that there is no reason to maintain property belonging to the state at a high expense, if there is no longer a need for it.

Prison service still understaffed

However, according to the Kuuske, one of the main long-term issues facing the prison service for has been the lack of staff. 1,500 people could be employed in Estonia's prison service, however there are currently 300 fewer than that.

"With the tasks and workload we have today, it would be optimal to work with 1,250-1,300 people. Our work has proved quite alienating for many, and only a person with an impeccable background themselves can join us. That sets certain limits," said Kuuse.

Kuuse added, that human interaction plays an increasingly important role in this kind of work. He explained that nowadays, the prison officers not only guard the prisoners, but could also be classified as a special form of social work. According to Kuuse, in this way, inmates are helped to solve their problems, change their thought patterns and manage better in the future, once they return to regular society.

"Therefore, the decrease in inmates does not mean there will be layoffs for us in the near future. However, we can hope that, considering the aforementioned changes, our need for labor in the form of continuous recruitment, will decrease in the future. And that the great social challenge and excitement of the work itself will bring us the colleagues we need," added Kuuse.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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