National Audit Office: Prison system in need of streamlining to cut costs

Tartu Prison.
Tartu Prison. Source: Facebook/Prison communications department

The Ministry of Justice could cut capacity in Estonia's prisons, even by closing one prison altogether, the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll) finds in a report published Thursday.

The National Audit Office says that since the number of inmates in Estonia's three prisons has fallen from around 3,000 to 2,000 over the course of the past decade, and is projected to fall further, prison occupancy will fall to a third in the decade to come (from the current occupancy rate of 70 percent).

The office estimates the cost of managing the three prisons, in Tallinn, Tartu, and Jõhvi (Viru Prison), will more than double from the current level of €2,800 per inmate per month to €6,600, by 2032.

The Ministry of Justice also has so far not done enough to improve or adapt the management of the existing prison infrastructure to meet the changing needs, the audit office finds.

While the Estonian prison system has been significantly modernized in the last twenty years, with 10 dilapidated prisons having been replaced with three more contemporary facilities, the square meterage of maximum-security prison currently in use will soon be in excess of that needed, the office says.

At the same time, the potential of using the open prison as a more rehabilitative and economical method of incarceration on behalf of the state has not been fully utilized, the audit office finds in its report.

For example, the report says, a number of inmates are waiting for a place in the Tallinn open prison, yet at the same time there are vacancies available in the Viru open prison.

Open prison allows inmates off-site during the day to, for instance, work or use Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) facilities.

If the property and staff at the Tallinn and Viru prisons were to ensure the enforcement of the imprisonment of all inmates in Estonia (ie. a reduction to two prison facilities nationwide), the state would save up to €13 million per year in maintenance costs as of 2023.

With only two prisons under management, the cost per inmate would be more than a thousand euros lower than forecast for 2032 (see above).

This proposal would entail closing the older Tartu Prison for good.

Dis-economies of scale would be achieved by placing prisoners in individual cells as freed up by the falling inmate numbers, the office adds, and would lead to fewer rehabilitation options.

While prison real estate is managed by the state agency the RKK, this body cannot make fundamental proposals for adapting the prison infrastructure without input from the ministry and without specific tasks, the audit office says, meaning it remains solely in the role of prison buildings manager.

Furthermore, inmate employment models used in prisons are set up with larger prisons hosting longer-term inmates in mind, the audit office says, adding they no longer meet the needs of the modern-day labor market, which requires more diverse skills. 

This in turn diminishes the scope for those who have finished their terms to reintegrate into society.

Even those undergoing training with the prison-industry company AS Eesti Vanglatööstus, mostly for skilled jobs in metals or timber, often do not get the chance to complete their training, the office says.

The ability of the Ministry of Justice to assess the provision and impact of rehabilitative activities needs improvement, though on the plus side, the ministry has recently commenced with development projects that improve data-based assessment and automate data processing.

By using the recorded data on detention and prison activities in a more diverse manner, there is greater potential to identify factors that influence rehabilitation, the National Audit Office says.

In summing-up, the National Audit Office recommends the Minister of Justice consider the closure of one prison complex, or of less occupied units, in order to slow rising costs and for the sake of more efficient use of space.

A long-term prison infrastructure management plan also needs to be drawn up, the office says in its report, taking into account the upcoming decrease in the number of inmates.

The National Audit Office finds that the Minister of Justice should organize the database relating to the detention of inmates, in order to be able to assess the provision and impact of rehabilitative activities in prisons.

The National Audit Office also recommends the RKK management board chair, with the approval of the Ministry of Justice, find ways to reduce costs incurred by prison properties and improve the efficiency of use of the prison infrastructure.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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