While Estonia's prison inmate numbers are falling, the Ministry of Justice says that this has not happened to the extent of necessitating the closure of any of the country's three prison facilities.
The annual cost of maintaining the three facilities, in Tallinn, Tartu and Jõhvi (Viru Prison), is €84 million, while the 2024 state budget includes a requirement for savings of €1 million from the prisons sector.
Rait Kuuse, Ministry of Justice undersecretary with the responsibility for prisons, said however that it is unreasonable to rush to close an entire prison; the older Tartu Prison has been linked with a speculative closure in an audit report issued by the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll) earlier this week.
Appearing on ETV morning show "Terevisioon" Friday, Kuuse said: "Perhaps ultimately it doesn't make sense to maintain three prisons, but right at present it does."
As of this week, 1,915 people are serving out sentences in the three prisons in Estonia, though capacity stands at 3,300.
This freed-up capacity is the result of falling inmate numbers, a trend which the justice ministry is "positively surprised" about, Kuuse added (Kuuse noted that 20 years ago there were around 4,500 inmates nationwide).
The prison system has already been streamlined in the years since independence; whereas there were 10 dorm-type prisons, dubbed "universities of crime" by critics, there are now as noted three, all equipped with cells.
Tallinn Prison, the newest facility, was finished in late 2018 and is actually located just outside city limits, in Rae Municipality, replacing the old, run-down prison on Magasiini tee in the city center.
Some inmates serve open prison terms, allowing them off-site during the day.
Kuuse listed a falling crime rate, shorter sentences, and greater use of probation and suspended sentences as factors in this fall (Estonia's general population has also fallen since independence – ed.).
The shrinking numbers are likely to continue, both Kuuse and the National Audit Office have noted.
One inmate in Estonia costs around €3,000 to host per month.
The National Audit Office says that the current prison occupancy rate, currently at 70 percent, will continue to fall in the coming years, while the average cost of hosting a single inmate will more than double to around €6,600 by 2032.
One proposal that would not require any prison closure would have the U.K., whose prisons are at capacity, renting prison space in Estonia for some of its inmate overflow.
Editor: Andrew Whyte