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Criticism of Sweden’s record-long detentions is growing

‘Those two weeks were so far the worst in my life. Because I was heartbroken, I was afraid, I was worried, I did not know what lay ahead.’
– Andreas Nygren, today with an NGO helping minors in detention
‘I’d very much prefer to be locked up with rats and bad food.’
– ‘Göran’, in pretrial detention for 850 days with no access to the outside world

Transcript: ‘Göran’ sat in pretrial detention for 850 days – criticism of Sweden’s record-long detentions is growing
Source: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/avsnitt/392059?programid=4702
Program: In the Name of the Law
Radio channel: Swedish State Radio (sverigesradio.se)
Broadcast date: 6 July 2014
Original language: Swedish
Length: 29:32

Key:
Andreas Nygren: Processkedjan (NGO helping minors in detention)
Beatrice Ask: Minister for Justice
Bengt Holmgren: Psychologist
Elisabet Fura: Chief Justice Ombudsman
Elisabeth Lager: Legal Director, Swedish Prison and Probation Service
‘Göran’: Detained in isolation for 850 days (not his real name)
Göran Martinsson: Stockholm Police
Johnny Lind: Police Commissioner
Lars Bergman: Swedish Police Union
Lena Olsson: Left Party
Lasse Wierup: Presenter
Morgan Johansson: Social Democrat Party
Mattias Pleijel: Assistant Presenter
Nils Öberg: Swedish Correctional Service
Per Hedkvist: Prison and Probation Service Gotland detention official
Rickard Jonsson: Sweden Democrats (Right Wing Party)
Thomas Rolén: Head of the Administrative Court (Appeals division)

STARTS:
Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Sweden should have a humane correctional system. So why are we one of the countries that can keep people detained indefinitely in extreme isolation? And why is it that many agree with the UN and other bodies who say that the system should be changed? And how is it that the issue is nevertheless politically dead? And why does no one know how often the correctional authorities decide on their own on isolation even after the courts have made a ruling that there shouldn’t be isolation? Welcome to ‘In the Name of the Law’ with me, Lasse Wierup, Presenter.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: Our Swedish remand prisons were not designed for the detention periods that have evolved over time.

Beatrice Ask, Minister of Justice: There are rules for when restrictions are to be imposed and if they are followed it is reasonable.

‘Göran’: I’d very much prefer to be locked up with rats and bad food. The window where I lived for nine months, it’s the third to the far right there.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: We’re standing in the park in front of Kronoberg remand prison in Stockholm. 31-year-old ‘Göran’ lived up in the taller building.

‘Göran’: It’s not a real life up there. People aren’t evolved to be in isolation.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: ‘Göran’ – who is actually called something else – is one of the main characters in the largest narcotics trial ever in Sweden, where detention times have broken Swedish records. ‘Göran’ was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of having attempted to coordinate a large shipment of cocaine in the Caribbean Sea.

‘Göran’: I come from an ordinary Swedish family. I’ve had all kinds of jobs. And I have lived on the wrong side of the law too. I’ve been convicted of grand larceny and aggravated robbery. Before this case that is.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Because the prosecutors believe that there is a risk that ‘Göran’ will interfere with the investigation, the court permitted that so-called restrictions be imposed on him. This meant that he was not allowed to see anyone other than custody staff, his lawyer, and the police officers who interrogated him. He was not allowed any TV, radio, newspapers, or computer in his cell.

‘Göran’: Go into a toilet and lock the door. And sit there for 24 hours. Just try it. And don’t make contact with anyone. You can’t talk to anyone, you just sit there, and three times a day a small flap opens and food is tossed in. A completely bare room of 7m2 where you spend 23 out of 24 hours. Then you have an hour in which you are able to go up on the roof, and there are small ‘pie slices’ as they call them. You see them on the roof there.

Remand staff: This is what a cell looks like. We have a bed, a desk, a small stool, everything fastened to the walls and floors to prevent them from being thrown around. We have a small metal sink.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Restrictions are not uncommon, quite the opposite: they are the rule in most cases. Approximately 2 out of 3 people in pre-trial detention or about 6,000 people per year have restrictions imposed on them for varying periods of time.

Elisabet Fura: [3:14] I find it troubling when you see how often these long periods in custody are coupled with restrictions. They really are locked up for 23 hours a day, and that obviously does something to people, it affects them to be locked up like that.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [3:29] Elisabet Fura, head justice ombudsman, has previously sat on the bench of the European Court of Human Rights, and according to her, the correctional system has recently taken steps to imposing even harsher conditions by building so-called ‘security jails’.

Elisabeth Fura, Justice ombudsman: There is a door that opens automatically, and you go into a corridor alone, monitored through cameras by a guard who is sitting in a completely different building looking at you as you go out and go through and go to this little pie slice where you get to wander around like a – well like a caged animal, then, for an hour, and then go back, and you have not met a single person in that whole time.

‘Göran’: When I tell friends and acquaintances how it works, so many of them look bewildered, asking ‘What? Can it really be like that?’

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: Bengt Holmgren, I am a psychologist, I have worked as a consultant at Kronoberg remand prison in Stockholm.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Bengt Holmgren has met hundreds of people in detention and has studied how restrictions can trigger mental illness.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: Here is a sofa in the shade.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: In about 25% of the cases he has seen a connection. It seems that one can say that the isolation itself causes mental illness in the form of depression or anxiety and it remains as long as one has restrictions until these are lifted.

‘Göran’: One day you are in a panic and want to get out, the next you are depressed by everything, it’s a real roller coaster. I got problems with my eyesight because you have a wall in front of you, just three feet in front of you all the time, so – it’s a very unusual feeling indeed.

Remand prison staff: [05:14] Shutters have a small remote control so that they themselves can control. But that’s when they do not have restrictions. If they have restrictions then they must not have any contact with the outside world.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: An important reason for the emergence of these questions about mental illness is that they do not know when the detention and restrictions will come to an end. If they knew that, it would be easier to cope with it, I think.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: 31-year-old ‘Göran’ says that he recognises the what psychologist Bengt Holmgren is describing.

‘Göran’ [5:46] Had someone told me on the first day when I was sitting there that ‘you will be there for one hundred days’, it would have been hard. But then at least one would know! When a hundred days comes and goes, then two hundred, then four hundred, then six hundred, then eight hundred days, when one begins to wonder when will it end? And one has no clue!

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Unlike some countries – including France, Spain, and Denmark – Sweden has chosen not to have any upper limit to detention. Detention decisions can be extended indefinitely. Same thing with isolation.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: [06:18] I have asked some police officers, what would it mean for you if you had a maximum of three months? And they answer: Well, we would have to work faster. They didn’t act like they thought it would make their work impossible. Because as it stands now, there is no obligation to do things quickly.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [6:35] Psychologist Bengt Holmgren is not the only one who believes that Sweden should introduce an upper time limit.

Elisabeth Fura, Justice ombudsman: If you had such a provision, it would help the prosecutor and the police to be more effective in their investigations if they knew there was an upper limit.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Ombudsman Elisabeth Fura says that the judicial review process of extending detention is sometimes not as thorough as it should be. The review process is handled in a routine manner. Detention is the default just in case. Or the extension of the detention is erring on the side of caution.

‘Göran’: From the moment of my final interrogation to the trial date, several several hundred days went by. And on good days, I had no contact with the investigative unit at all, I just sat, well – in storage basically. It’s amusing to compare my situation with the Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and the other one who were imprisoned in Africa. They were imprisoned together. I much prefer a room with two hundred people and being locked up with a friend than to be in total isolation without seeing a single person. It’s… Ah it’s… Indescribable.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [7:40] The Council of Europe’s Committee Against Torture has made five visits to Swedish remand prisons since 1991. Every time, the correctional system has been criticised. And it is precisely the frequent restrictions that were the object of criticism. The UN Committee against Torture has criticised Sweden on similar grounds and suggested measures to break the isolation practice. Ombudsman Elisabeth Fura again:

Elisabeth Fura, Justice ombudsman: [08:06] And each time, it becomes the… It gets embarrassing when nothing has happened [between visits], it just becomes an exercise of ‘naming and shaming’.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: But really – has nothing happened at all? During Almedal Week [an annual festival of politics and current affairs] in Gotland the Correctional Service Chief Executive Director Nils Öberg has been invited to a seminar to talk about how he and his colleagues are dedicating resources to trying to help inmates get back to a better life. But when it comes to those sitting in detention, no resources are dedicated, whereas, according to Nils Öberg, they’re needed.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: [08:37] Yes, but I see it this way. My opinion is that our Swedish remand prisons are not designed for the detention periods that have evolved over time, ie periods of custody have become longer and longer. And that means a great pressure on the detainees, but also a great strain on the correctional authority which, because it is not meant to be that people sit in custody for such long periods of time, and certainly not with extensive restrictions. It is very difficult to manage this in a good way.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [9:14] The problem is, according to Correctional Service’s Director General that the staff do not have time to socialise with the detainees or break the isolation in any other way.

Nils Öberg, Swedish Correctional Service: It is our job to do it, but often that competes with many other activities that our staff also have to do.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: [09:30] One of the most serious problems is that it generates problems with one’s ability to have an effective legal defence, in the sense that if you have suffered from depression or an anxiety disorder that you’ve had for so many months and then you are expected to go to trial and be able to defend yourself, then there it is a serious problem.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: What psychologist Bengt Holmgren is describing affected the detainee ‘Göran’. When the trial for drug smuggling finally began, he lost his temper with the prosecutor and erupted.

‘Göran’ (tape from hearing): I thought I’d just start by apologising because on a few occasions during this trial I have found it difficult to keep my mouth shut when perhaps it should have been.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: This is Stockholm District Court’s own recording of the hearing where ‘Göran’ appeals to the Court to be understanding.

‘Göran’ (tape from hearing): You become quite frustrated when you sit in isolation for 20 months, it’s been over 300 days since the police interrogated me, and I hope as well that the court will have some kind of consideration that one is not always in one’s best condition when one comes down here to the courtroom.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: Depression may bring a kind of feeling of resignation as well. One can, as it were, give up the very idea of why one should care.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: ‘Göran’ was not the only one of the defendants who was affected psychologically by the prolonged periods of custody.

[Recording:] I can not stand to sit in this jail anymore. I get treated… You discuss whether you should take an hour and a quarter to go for lunch or if you should take an hour and a half and put me in a cell full of drunks up there – so I do not give a damn about your wretched lunch.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: A 58-year-old man who was arrested with 1.4 tons of cocaine was about to break the Swedish pre-trial detention record of four years. The man was so tormented by his detention conditions that he was considering confessing to other offences in the hope that this would mean he would be transferred to a prison.

[Recording:] Now I want to know, prosecutors. Are you looking to accuse me of anything more than [fourteen years]?. Then I will confess it. I will confess exactly whatever you want. I want to know: if tomorrow I sign this declaration of satisfaction, does it mean that I am going to prison next week?

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [12:00] Restrictions are not just imposed in investigations of serious crimes, and those who are in isolation are not only adults. Even minors suspected of crimes have stringent restrictions imposed on them.

Andreas Nygren: You’re scared, you’re sad, you’re heartbroken, angry, you are in a whirlwind, and especially if you are a child under eighteen. I’m Andreas Nygren, I come from Processkedjan. We have met and coached youth who are 16-17 years old who have been in detention for 3-4 months with restrictions.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Processkedjan is a voluntary organisation that seeks out kids who are between 15 and 21 who have been arrested by the police.

Andreas Nygren: Especially those who are in custody and have restrictions, and we follow them from there all the way to freedom.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Thanks to a partnership with the correctional service, the coaches obtain authorisation to visit youth with restrictions and help them overcome some of the isolation. That is the job that correctional services executive director Nils Öberg says his staff do not have time to do. Andreas Nygren who today is 36 was just 17 when he was arrested for the first time.

Andreas Nygren: [13:05] Those two weeks were so far the worst in my life. Because I was heartbroken, I was afraid, I was worried, I did not know what lay ahead. And there was really no one who came into the room and could talk to me about these thoughts. I also got a lot of insight about what I should have done with my life, but I did not know what I’d do with it, with those thoughts. I sat in isolation for almost six months in relation to my final conviction and at the time I wrote a diary, I wrote a diary every day I sat in there, and when I read that diary today, I realise how bad I was feeling. Because I was paranoid, I thought they had set up cameras in my cell, I was sometimes euphorically happy, and sometimes I was as low as you can get, and all this was a state of shock. And if you are sitting there as a child locked up with those thoughts, it breaks you down completely.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: [13:54] This is a small group of people that get people interested or thinking about the issue or how should I put it: feel sorry for them.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Psychologist Bengt Holmgren again.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: It’s a problem that the public in general terms are ignorant of, and in addition a little prejudiced about, who think that these people are in this situation because they have themselves to blame. And then they forget about the important principle that you are innocent until unless a guilty verdict is handed down, and so you should be treated accordingly.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Five years have passed since the European Council’s Torture Committee last visited Sweden. At the time we received specific criticism for keeping minors in custody with restrictions, and a series of recommendations were submitted to Sweden. The Swedish government has followed one of these recommendations, and this means that the prosecutor’s office each year must report the exact numbers of minors in custody. The figures show that there is a higher percentage of minors who are detained with restrictions than the general population on remand. 80% of all children arrested between the ages of 15 and 17 had restrictions imposed in 2012, or in real numbers: 97 people. That same year, Denmark, who had also received criticism from the Torture Committee, did not have a single minor in incommunicado detention.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: [15:28] The former chief of Kronoberg remand prison used to say that this is a very important barometer of how things are in Sweden, how we treat the people who are detained here. I think he was quite right.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [15:32] The conversation with the psychologist Bengt Holmgren takes place during the political Almedalen Week in Visby, on a bench by the beach. A few hundred meters away, political party activities are ongoing.

Mattias Pleijel, Assistant Presenter: Politicians over here in Almedalen then – are they interested in this issue?

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: I think you should ask them if you get the chance.

Mattias Pleijel, Assistant Presenter: We’ll do that a little later. Then we will also explain why a Swedish correctional institution may decide to keep a person in isolation month after month even though a court has said no to restrictions. But first some news in brief.

News: [15:54] The arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be addressed in the Stockholm district court again on the 16th of July. Assange has been living at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for over two years to ensure that he be released to Sweden where he is suspected of rape and is remanded in absentia. The public defenders find it unreasonable that he should continue to be detained for such a long time, whilst the prosecutors do not think it is possible to use such arguments as Assange chose to stay away.

[Unrelated news item relating to reforming the police force until 22:20]

Per Hedkvist: [22:24] When you lock up a person for so many hours a day, it affects a person mentally, that is obvious. My name is Per Hedkvist, I work as a correctional officer in Gotland. With our younger detainees, we have a requirement placed on us to do things to break the isolation for at least 2 hours a day.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [23:04] It is the courts who are responsible for deciding whether people should be arrested or not, and whether restrictions should be imposed. But when we have examined the conditions in the Swedish prison service, we have discovered that there are exceptions to this practice. Here’s what psychologist Bengt Holmgren, who has worked for many years in the prison system, has to say.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: [23:20] There are cases where the court has decided to lift the restrictions, and yet you still sit there in seclusion because the custody officers have determined that there is a security justification.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: This was what happened to 31-year-old ‘Göran’ who was detained in Sweden’s largest narcotics trial. After 20 months, the Stockholm district court determined that it was no longer necessary to keep him under restrictions. ‘Göran’ looked forward to socialising with other detainees and to receiving unsupervised visits. Instead, he received notice from the prison that he would be held in so-called seclusion, which in practice meant that the isolation continued. Now he did not even have the right to make a private phone call to his mother.

‘Göran’ [23:43] The decision by the court, it becomes totally ineffective. It’s like a… So it is completely meaningless!

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [23:50] The decision was taken by an official at the remand prison who consulted with police and prosecutors. The reason was that the correctional services feared that there was a risk that ‘Göran’ could plan new crimes from inside the detention center.

‘Göran’ [24:01] After the court lifted the restrictions against me – that was in September 2012 – I still sat in complete isolation until the 23rd of May 2013.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [24:10] What happened then was that the Svea Court of Appeal had ruled that his detention had become disproportionately long. After 850 days – or two years and four months – ‘Göran’ was to be released, despite the fact that the trial was not yet over. From having been in total isolation due to the correctional service’s estimations that that he was likely to reoffend, he was now free on condition that he surrendered his passport and reported regularly to the police station.

‘Göran’ [24:37] I urge all those people in the judicial system to try and sit one day – just one day – in solitary confinement.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: When were you last in a Swedish remand prison?

Beatrice Ask, Minister for Justice: Good question. It must have been at one of the police visits I’ve made when I’m out there every week and visit the police and then you often look in but, but… I have not been locked inside a remand prison. I have not.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: During the political week in Almedalen we sat down at a picnic table with Minister for Justice Beatrice Ask. She has followed the record-long detention periods in this and other recent cases, although she did not want to give us an opinion about whether 850 days isolation is reasonable or not.

Beatrice Ask [Justice Minister]: [25:14] Where specific restrictions are in place they must have been authorised, and then they are reviewed by a court continually as well, so I assume that they had a good reasons.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: The fact, that the Court’s decision on restrictions can be replaced by the Correctional Service’s internal isolation rules, appears to be news for the Minister of Justice.

Mattias Pleijel, Assistant Presenter: [25:28] And how common is this? That the correctional institution decides on total seclusion?

Beatrice Ask, Minister for Justice: I do not know offhand, but I am certain that the prison administration has accurate statistics on the matter.

Nils Öberg: [25:38] No I can not give you any statistics on it.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: We find Prison Service Director Nils Öberg in the crowd.

Nils Öberg: I do not know the statistics about how often this occurs off the top of my head.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Nils Öberg turns to his press secretary who promises to get back to us. But in the end we get no such statistics.

Nils Öberg’s press secretary: We do not have that kind of statistical data.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Elisabeth Lager is the legal director at the Corrections Authority.

Elisabeth Lager: Every decision is taken on a case-by-case basis and that is why it is difficult to gather data on it.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: [26:01] But back to the question of whether Sweden should follow other countries and impose a maximum limit on detention. In Denmark, for example, six months of detention for offences that have up to 6 years prison sentence, and one year of arrest for offences that have still longer sentences. And now that we are here in Almedalen and have the opportunity to do a survey of all the parliamentary parties, we ask the question.

Johan Linander, Centre Party: Custody periods in Sweden are too long. I am Johan Linander, I am the legal spokesperson for the Centre Party. But the response from the Centre Party is still ‘no’ [to imposing upper limit].

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: KD, Folkpartiet, the Greens, and the Social Democrats give the same answer.

Morgan Johansson: It’s very difficult to impose absolute deadlines.

Mattias Pleijel: But other countries do it.

Morgan Johansson: I know, but it’s very hard to do!

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: The person saying that is Morgan Johansson, who is tipped to become Attorney General if the Social Democrats form the new government in the autumn elections.

Morgan Johansson: Many of those investigations are extremely complicated, so I’m not willing to make a statement unless I see a proper impact assessment.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Two parties, however, say yes.

Rickard Jonsson, Sweden Democrats: There must be a maximum time limit, that is my firm belief. People sit in limbo too long, often without any information. It is unworthy of a country like Sweden.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: The person who says that is the Sweden Democrats’ Rickard Jonsson. And for once, his party agrees with the Left Party, if only on this one issue.

Lena Olsson, Left Party: Human rights must also apply to those suspected of crimes.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: And that was the Left Party’s Lena Olsson. But the fact is that the issue in practice has already been addressed. At the beginning of the year, the Prosecution Authority presented an investigation of how Sweden should handle international criticism. And in this investigation, that the Minister of Justice hopes will lead to Sweden avoiding future criticism, no upper limit has been suggested.

Beatrice Ask, Minister for Justice: It has then been argued in the legal system that we achieve better results without upper limits to detention periods because then people would simply wait until they reach this limit, so such a reform would have a problematic effect.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Yes if you were to believe Justice Minister Beatrice Ask, the police would on the contrary risk having to work slower if an upper limit were introduced. Instead, she hopes for plea deals for those who do cooperate with the police, better evidentiary standards through earlier interrogations, and more resources for forensic work, an acknowledged bottleneck. It is also proposed that detainees be guaranteed two hours of human contact per day.

Mattias Pleijel: [28:29] Are other countries wrong in having an upper limit?

Beatrice Ask, Minister for Justice: They have a different way of thinking. That does not mean one is better than the other.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: One who is not convinced by the Prosecutor General’s investigation is psychologist Bengt Holmgren who studied mental illness amongst detainees.

Bengt Holmgren, psychologist: The investigatory commissions from both the UN and the European Council – they of course agree that this is not good. That is to say, that it is harmful to do things this way. That should be sufficient reason to actually make more radical changes than what is proposed in this investigation.

Lasse Wierup, Presenter: Finally we can tell you that ‘Göran’, who appeared in our feature, was sentenced last week to prison for 6 years and 10 months. And that concludes ‘In the Name of the Law’ for this time.