Natl Audit Office: Area of prisons should be reduced to cut costs

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It would be reasonable for the Ministry of Justice to reduce the area of prisons, the National Audit Office finds in its audit report published on Thursday.
It would be reasonable for the Ministry of Justice to reduce the area of prisons, the National Audit Office finds in its audit report published on Thursday. Photo: Sander Ilvest

As the number of inmates has fallen from around 3000 to 2000 in a decade and the drop is expected to continue, prison occupancy will decrease to a third over the next decade, which is why it would be reasonable for the Ministry of Justice to reduce the area of prisons, the National Audit Office finds in its audit report published on Thursday.

While in 2023, prisons are still occupied to an average of 70 percent, they will be occupied to only one-third 10 years from now, according to current forecasts. As a result, according to the calculations by the National Audit Office, the cost of managing three prisons will increase from the current 2,800 euros to 6,600 euros per inmate per month by 2032.

In the opinion of the National Audit Office, the Ministry of Justice has so far not done enough to improve or adapt the management of the existing prison infrastructure to meet the changing needs. Although the Estonian prison system has been significantly modernized in the last 20 years and 10 depreciated prisons have been replaced with three more contemporary prisons, the area of maximum-security prison currently in use will soon be too large.

At the same time, the potential of using the open prison as a more rehabilitative and economical method of imprisonment for the state has not been fully utilized -- for example, a number of inmates are waiting for a place in the Tallinn open prison, while at the same time there are vacancies in the Viru open prison. In open prison, inmates can leave the prison to go to work and shopping, use the services of, for example, the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund, and so on.

The National Audit Office finds that it is necessary to critically assess the reasonableness of keeping all units in operation. If the property and staff of the Tallinn and Viru prisons were to ensure the enforcement of the imprisonment of all inmates, the state would save up to 13 million euros per year in maintenance costs as at 2023 by closing the oldest and most depreciated Tartu prison. If only two prisons were managed, the cost per one inmate would be more than 1,000 euros lower than forecast by 2032.

As the number of inmates decreases, the prison infrastructure, staff and rehabilitative activities need a long-term plan. According to the ministry, the vacated space can be used to place inmates in individual cells, but in the opinion of the National Audit Office, this no longer meets the principle of efficient use of the existing infrastructure, because the prison would not be able to save on staff and property management costs as the number of inmates decreases. This means that there could be less time and money and fewer people to develop rehabilitation. The ministry has not estimated the costs of prisons with single cells and the staffing needs to meet the objective of rehabilitation in sparsely occupied prisons.

State real estate manager RKAS, whose task is to act as a competence center for the state real estate environment and the provision of real estate services, should, according to the principles of the state’s real estate policy, provide support to the Ministry of Justice in order to improve the use of the prison infrastructure and, if necessary, support the ministry in calculating the profitability of adapting prison buildings and their possible closure. However, RKAS cannot make fundamental proposals for adapting the prison infrastructure without an input from the ministry and without a specific task. As a result, RKAS only has the role of a prison buildings manager.

The National Audit Office concluded that the inmate employment models used in prisons are adapted to large prisons and long terms of imprisonment and no longer meet the needs of today’s labor market, which requires more diverse skills. The majority of the positions offered by prison-industry company AS Eesti Vanglatoostus are skilled jobs in metal or wood plants, which require training before getting the job. However, the decrease in the number of inmates and the shortening of the sentence means that fewer and fewer people qualify for jobs with special skills or complete the training, including there are situations where inmates complete the training but are released before they get the opportunity to commence work.

The ability of the Ministry of Justice to assess the provision and impact of rehabilitative activities needs improvement. As a positive, however, the Ministry has recently commenced with development projects that improve data-based assessment and automate data processing. By using the recorded data on detention and prison activities in a more diverse manner, there is greater potential to identify factors that influence rehabilitation.

The National Audit Office recommends the minister of justice to consider the closure of one prison complex or less occupied units in order to slow down the increase of costs and for the sake of more efficient use of space. In addition, a long-term plan for the management of the prison infrastructure should be drawn up, taking into account the upcoming decrease in the number of inmates.

The National Audit Office finds that the minister of justice should organize the database related to the detention of persons in order to be able to assess the provision and impact of rehabilitative activities in prisons.

The National Audit Office recommends the chairman of the management board of RKAS, with the approval of the Ministry of Justice, to find ways to reduce the costs of prison properties and improve the efficiency of using the prison infrastructure.

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