– It’s like being judged over and over again. Prisoner Mona says I am very scared.
A week ago, it was decided that the women’s ward where she worked would be closed.
Mona, who is serving a ten-year sentence in Bergen, will be transferred to Scheene, where the men’s prison will be converted into a large women’s prison. She has no idea when to leave.
Now Mona and other women in Bergen fear losing the opportunity they’ve built for years. They also fear who they will meet behind the walls in Skyne.
Petrine Iverson says the concerns are shared by women in prison across the country.
She heads Legal Counsel for Women (Jurk), which has been working with legal aid for women prisoners for over 40 years.
Immediate action after years of criticism
Prison conditions for some high-security women in Norway have been criticized for years (see fact box).
In 2022, the Correctional Service recorded a sharp increase in self-harm among female prisoners. That’s one of the reasons why a task force was set up to come up with possible proposals for changes.
A damning new report came from the civil ombudsman, which described conditions at Bridtweed Women’s Prison as “critical” and “life-threatening”.
This happens after prison inmates and staff witness a woman take her own life behind bars.
Overall, the Correctional Service considered the situation of women prisoners in high security to be urgent and the government took a number of immediate measures.
One of them is the transfer of women on high security duty across the country to Skeen.
– We believe it is necessary to move women to ensure better prison conditions. Both should ensure equal punishment and remove them from men. In addition, Schein prison has small housing units that are ideal for vulnerable women, says Heidi Pottolfs, department director at the Correctional Services Directorate (KDI).
It is not certain when the girls will be replaced. First, new places had to be found for the male prisoners sitting on the skein.
In the long term, KDI wants to look at different punishment options in western Norway, including a separate women’s prison.
They moved because they served men
Female prisoners are not supposed to serve time alongside men, but 23 women in Bergen and Stavanger do.
This challenges the protection of women and contradicts the principles of the Norwegian correctional services. This is also emphasized in the decision to transfer women to prisons other than Fredwood.
But the move goes against another important principle in Norwegian prison care: that prisoners should, as much as possible, spend their time outside the walls in residence and close to family.
Now women talk about their fear of losing important connections with loved ones while serving time.
– I think a lot about the possibility of getting visitors and visiting family. Your contact with the family at this time has something to do with my progress. In custody, when you don’t have that option, it’s very difficult.
That’s what “Amalie”, a mother of three in detention in Bergen, says. She wishes to remain anonymous for the sake of her family.
– “What we fear when inmates are forced to work far away from family and friends is that their rehabilitation will deteriorate,” says Jurkil Iverson.
KDI’s Bottolfs says the violation of the proximity principle is challenging, but to better ensure the different needs of women, they should be removed from men’s prisons. KDI is now looking at compensatory measures such as home visits and increased call and video time.
He fears harsh prison conditions
Mona Schein in Bergen believes that it can become a good women’s prison, and that the women at Brettweet will be better off. But she feels safe in Bergen and doesn’t want to move.
She and “Amalie” fear being transferred to a harsh prison environment with more mentally ill women.
– I fear that the girls from here will leave more because they fear for their own safety and because they don’t see people close to them, says Mona.
– I immediately felt that fear. We hear rumors about how things are at Breithwaite. I hope they will think about who they will add to the department, he says
Iversen in Jurk believes the concerns are justified and fears problems with the transfer of seriously mentally ill inmates to a new prison.
Bottolfs at KDI, on the other hand, says it won’t be a tough environment in Skien. She says Skyne has small departments that ensure a good perspective and close contact between inmates and staff. She also believes that mentally ill people will do well there:
– We have many women in prisons who are mentally ill and in challenging situations. By establishing the Skien prison in addition to Bredtveit, we will have more and better offers for this target group.
An unknown future
Mona and “Amalie” in Bergen prison say they are full of questions. They say the uncertainty of not knowing a moving date or new conditions is burdensome.
– Mona says I feel my security slipping away.
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