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The Return

Greenlandic prisoners, once exiled to Denmark, are offered a chance to go home

One day last August, Karl was busy in the carpentry workshop at Herstedvester Prison when he was called to the front office. Now what? he thought. Karl, a Greenlandic man in his early forties, had been an inmate at Herstedvester, in a suburb of Copenhagen, for six years. Though Denmark still felt unfamiliar in many ways, he had gotten used to the routine at the prison, where he lived among Danish and Greenlandic inmates. “You’re leaving next week,” a prison administrator told him. He was going back to Greenland.

“I’m happy, but I kind of can’t believe it,” Karl told me a few weeks later, as we chatted in one of the prison’s visitation rooms. “I’m going home.” He said his hands shook as he signed the necessary paperwork. “I’m thinking, I need to make a phone call. I waited until I got back to my wing, I need to make that phone call.” As soon as he could, he called his mother. “Mom, I’ll be home soon,” he told her. Immediately, she began to cry.

In the summer of 1948, as Danish colonial rule in Greenland was coming to an end, three Danish legal experts and two Greenlandic interpreters were sent on a yearlong expedition to study local attitudes and make recommendations for a future legal code. They traveled by ship along the island’s west coast, visiting colonial towns and small hamlets. At the time, Greenland had no written law, so the lawyers interviewed local officials, vicars, teachers, doctors, and midwives.

In their report, the expedition members described their view of Greenland’s unique approach to criminal justice, one that focused on the person, not the deed. While most European societies punished lawbreakers based on the nature of their crimes, Greenlandic society instead considered the conditions that might help rehabilitate perpetrators in their local communities. In this system, culprits reportedly made amends without being labeled criminals, a practice the Danish lawyers coined “The Arctic Peace Model.” As Denmark and Greenland established a new legal code in the 1950s, they pioneered a new form of criminal law, one that did not include prisons.

For decades, Greenland was one of the world’s few prisonless societies. The country operated a number of “open institutions,” facilities that allowed people found to have broken the law to hold jobs during the day, then spend the night locked up. Those who were convicted of serious crimes—such as murder, violent assault, or rape—and were considered dangerous or required psychiatric treatment were sent nearly two thousand miles away, to Herstedvester. It is estimated that, since the 1950s, more than one hundred people have made the journey, serving their sentences in a country whose language and culture are unfamiliar to them—a practice human-rights advocates have long criticized. This critique recently prompted the construction of a prison in Greenland, priced at more than $59 million. After nine years of planning and construction, the country opened a maximum-security facility in Nuuk last summer, and prisoners at Herstedvester have been given the option to transfer.

Herstedvester Prison is located in the Copenhagen suburb of Albertslund, a town of nearly thirty thousand, connected to the capital’s S-train system. On a sunny day last August, I set out from Albertslund train station for the ten-minute walk to the facility, passing terraced row houses and small parks, crosscut by cycling paths. The complex, an inconspicuous constellation of yellow brick buildings, lies near a duck pond, tucked behind trees. It was quiet except for the chatter of birds. Then a police siren blared past. I approached the metal gate, hung with signs warning unauthorized persons to stay out. The lawn was covered in fallen green apples, some turning brown and rotten. A pack of black crows picked at the fruit.

Behind these gates, Herstedvester houses 160 inmates, the majority of whom need psychiatric treatment and observation. Of Denmark’s prisons, Herstedvester is the only one equipped to provide such services. The prison offers a variety of programs: addiction treatment, aggression management, and optional chemical castration for convicted sex offenders.

Historically, Herstedvester has had a separate wing for Greenlandic inmates and an interpreter on staff for those who don’t understand or speak Danish. While many Greenlanders know Denmark well, as they have family there and speak the language, plenty of others have no ties to the country. The Norwegian criminologist Evy Frantzsen has found that many Greenlandic inmates feel perplexed by Danish cultural norms upon arrival to Herstedvester, leading to a kind of “double punishment.”

Authorities have installed various measures to help Greenlandic inmates cope with life in Denmark, such as workshops, language classes, and weekly long-distance phone calls. The prison financed one family visit a year for inmates’ relatives who were not able to pay for the trip themselves. Now that inmates have the option to return, however, that program has expired.

At Herstedvester, I met with several prisoners in a small multipurpose room designed for inmates to consult with lawyers or to have their hair cut. The room was institutional but warm, lit by one window facing a paved yard, with artificial plants on the windowsill. Blue and purple chairs were arranged around a small table, and on the wall were three framed posters of faraway cities: Paris, London, New York. Next door, guards monitored surveillance footage. We could hear them chatting through the wall.

Of the five inmates I spoke with, only Karl said he definitely wanted to return to Greenland. There were twenty-nine Greenlandic men at Herstedvester when I visited—some of whom had been there for more than twenty years. Just ten have decided to return, while the rest are still considering their options. Some highlighted the addiction treatment program and individualized therapy they received as compelling reasons to stay. “Deep inside, I have problems,” said Jens, who is fifty-five years old. He told me about a childhood marred by abuse and friends dying by suicide. He started drinking early, at the age of twelve. “I’m staying at Herstedvester,” he said. “I’m in a treatment program, so I want to finish that.” Jens and others worried they wouldn’t have access to the same type of services in Greenland, as the country has a shortage of skilled healthcare workers.

Another inmate expressed a sense of having been rejected. I first met him two years ago, when he had just arrived at Herstedvester. “It has been very hard. And frustrating to get kicked out of your own country,” he said. “Greenland doesn’t care about those in indefinite custody. Doesn’t care at all.”

Naaja Nathanielsen, the director of the Greenlandic Department of Prisons and Probation, said she was not surprised that only about a third of the eligible inmates requested a transfer to Nuuk: “I think some want to wait and see what those who transferred up here have to say about it,” she said. “I’m very interested to see if they will want to come home.”

Karl was the only one to repeatedly invoke the idea of “home.” His friends and close family all live in Nuuk. But Greenland is a country of vast distances, and to inmates whose families or friends live on the east coast, Nuuk may not feel much closer than Herstedvester. That is, if they have anyone left at all.

“They have all died,” Jens told me, referring to his wife and siblings. Men like Jens have not experienced ordinary life in Denmark, but their sense of belonging has shifted during their years behind bars as family members have disappeared or scattered. Home has lost its meaning.

When I visited a second time, Karl was preparing to leave Denmark. He told me he sold many of the items he had built in the carpentry workshop and was packing everything he planned to bring—mainly photos and clothes—into just two bags. In an effort to minimize his checked luggage, he distributed the rest of his belongings to those who were staying behind.

A rendering of the new prison in Greenland. Courtesy FRIIS & MOLTKE Architects.

A rendering of the new prison in Greenland. Courtesy FRIIS & MOLTKE Architects.

Contemporary scholars have suggested that the legal expedition perpetuated a romanticized view of Greenland, and that their findings conveniently matched ideas popular among European academics at the time, rather than the country’s reality. Still, the model they outlined continues to influence policy to this day. The new prison in Nuuk, though a maximum-security facility, was designed as a “humane prison”—like many prisons in Scandinavia, it strives to mimic normal life and operate similarly to a small village.

Built in the mountains just outside the city, the prison stretches across ninety thousand square feet. Composed of several reddish-brown rectangular buildings, the facility allows inmates to move between different parts of the campus to go to work, attend classes, buy groceries, and sleep. The complex is surrounded by a concrete wall, curving to follow the contours of the rocky landscape. A local artist, Aka Høegh, embellished the perimeter with etchings of Greenlandic animals: flocks of birds, schools of fish, a walrus on an ice floe. The housing units, which can fit up to seventy-six people, are stacked atop one another—most cells have a view of Nuuk Fjord and the mountains beyond.

Last September, a few weeks after my visit to Herstedvester, Karl called me from the prison in Greenland. He told me his trip was “nice and calm,” and that his family had been there to greet him when he arrived at the small airport in Nuuk.

When he looked out the window at Herstedvester, Karl saw nothing but a gray wall. Now, he looks out at the snow-covered Sermitsiaq Mountain, a landmark which loomed large over his childhood. “It’s really lovely,” he said, adding that it felt strange to be back. Strange, but good.

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