Each of the country’s prisons has a spokesperson, elected amongst the prison population. Their primary purpose is to exchange with the administration on behalf of the prisoners. How are the spokespersons elected? How do they perform their duties? What value do they bring to the prisons and to the prisoners?
Henrick is a former spokesperson and he shared his views and experience with us.
Prison Insider. How did you become a spokesperson?¶
Henrick. In the prisons of Denmark, incarcerated persons have a right by law to appoint a spokesperson, even in special wings and the most secure prisons. They can address issues such as leisure facilities or the bathrooms, but they are not allowed to bring up matters regarding the prison staff.
I was in an open prison for 14 months. I began my sentence at the end of 2019 and was released in March 2021. I served my time during the COVID-19 pandemic, which made my experience quite different from what is usually done. Many of the rights we had were taken from us because they were afraid that the disease would spread. I launched a group that tried to obtain information about the pandemic. We sent our demands to the spokesman, who passed it onto the prison administration. It was a known fact that older people were the most vulnerable to COVID-19… Since 90% of Denmark’s prisoners are between 20 and 29 years old, we felt that we were not really at risk. We tried to get the administration and the politicians to understand that. This is how my political involvement inside prison began. Later, I was asked if I wanted to become the spokesman of my wing.
The election of spokespersons is a democratic process, and prisoners are free to choose if they wish to be candidates. You must inform the staff that you are running for spokesperson duty, so that they list your name. Prisoners are then gathered in the same room for the voting process, which is supervised by the staff.
The vote is handled anonymously. The votes are counted by the staff, after which the result is announced. The spokesperson is usually elected for three months, but the duration may vary between facilities. In larger prisons, a common spokesperson represents the spokesmen of all wings. That person is elected once a year.
In my prison, I was also the common spokesperson. I could speak with the administration on a regular basis. I was informed about things that were going to happen regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, and what was happening on a political level. Then, I was able to share that information with the other prisoners.
I also had a job as a prison driver, which meant that I was allowed to drive prisoners to the hospital that were not considered at risk of running away.
H. I was allowed to walk between the different wings and go everywhere in the prison. This is something you are not usually allowed to do. If people wanted to talk to me, they could come to me during my daily walk or they could call me. My phone number was on the boards, and I also had my own office with a computer. That was unique to my prison. We had meetings there with the other spokesmen. I was able to print notes to put up on the boards. If people had a problem, they could come to me directly or could ask the personnel to set up a meeting with me.
I was not sitting in my office that much, though. Usually, I walked around to make myself more approachable. Most incarcerated people do not have a good experience knocking on office doors. It takes a lot for them to do so.
I tried to organise meetings once a week for every new prisoner, but this got cancelled due to the pandemic. It had been done before, but it really depends on who the spokesperson is. Sometimes, the prisoners choose someone well organised who wants to help, but sometimes they choose the one with the biggest muscles.
I was able to investigate how the former spokesperson had done his job. I saw that he tried to help by taking over individual cases for each prisoner who came to him with a problem. He would ask to be signed a power of attorney and he would bring the case to the administration. This case-by-case approach was, in my opinion, a very bad way of solving problems. It makes communication regarding larger systemic issues very difficult.
I decided that it was better to exchange with the prisoners and help them formulate their own letter. I was able to tell them what the rules were, and the best ways to approach their situation considering the rules. When approaching the prison staff, we tried to figure out what the rules were. I believe it was more rewarding for them if they felt like they solved the problem by themselves. It also made it easier for me to take up other issues.
I would help illiterate prisoners filling out forms. I made sure that it was in their own wording. I helped all prisoners to communicate and translated in English for foreign prisoners. I also had a job as a prison driver, which meant that I was allowed to drive prisoners to the hospital that were not considered at risk of running away. I could go to the hospital and explain what was wrong with them if there was not enough prison staff to do so.
One of the most frustrating things was the grocery store. The prisoners felt that the prices were too high compared to the outside. From the prisoners that had been held for a long time, we gathered older receipts from the grocery store, compiled them, and compared the price differences over the last two years. We could then show that the prices had risen a lot more than on the outside. At one point, we managed to get price reductions on some of the most popular products.
When I first arrived as a spokesperson, I did not have the possibility to look into what happened before. There was no documentation of past cases.
PI. What are the limitations of being a spokesperson?¶
H. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were not allowed to work out inside the facility. The outdoor areas however were not equipped at all. A prisoner was in charge of a library, but he could not be there more than two or three hours a day.
In Denmark, the amount of prison staff is dropping every year. The government has been cutting salaries and some very hard disciplinary rules have been introduced five or six years ago. The idea was to minimise the conflicts between staff and prisoners, but it has had the exact opposite effect: tensions were exacerbated. The spokesperson is then even more valuable to both prisoners and staff. But this role relies very heavily on the person’s social skills.
When I first arrived as a spokesperson, I did not have the possibility to look into what happened before. There was no documentation of past cases. I started discussions with the administration and succeeded with great advancement on certain issues. But if one project is 90 % achieved when a spokesperson is replaced, the administration will abandon everything and wait for the next spokesperson to start from scratch. This means that the spokesperson’s role cannot be effective in the long term. Ideally, an incoming spokesperson should be able to see the advancement of all ongoing projects and pick up from where the last spokesperson left off.
Some of the problems have been the same for a long time. When a solution is found and defended by a spokesperson, the administration usually feels obligated to accept it - even when they would prefer not to. Improvement is very gradual. This is not necessarily the sign of a bad will, but rather the sign that staff and prisoners don’t share the same interests on all matters. Since the administration lacks personnel, they aim to make things easier to manage. For instance, they want to be able to control the costs in their budget, whereas we prisoners just want the conditions to be decent.
We have some mutual interests with the administration, but not always.