National Audit Office: prisons are about to become emptier, and it would be wise to give up some areas of the prison infrastructure in order to cut costs

10/12/2023 | 10:00 AM

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TALLINN, 12 October 2023 – 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. Therefore, 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 today. 

While in 2023, prisons are still occupied to an average of 70%, they will be occupied to only one-third ten 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 2800 euros to 6600 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 modernised in the last twenty years and ten 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 utilised – 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, etc.

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 a thousand 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 Ltd. (SRE), whose task is to act as a competence centre 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, the SRE cannot make fundamental proposals for adapting the prison infrastructure without an input from the ministry and without a specific task. As a result, SRE 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 labour market, which requires more diverse skills. The majority of the positions offered by prison-industry company AS Eesti Vanglatööstus 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 organise 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 State Real Estat Ltd., 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.

Background information

The National Audit Office audited the long-term plans of the Ministry of Justice and State Real Estate Ltd. and the activities related to the plans as well as their cost-effectiveness in the management of prison properties. The National Audit Office also analysed how the ministry has in these plans taken into account the gradual decrease in the number of inmates and increasing the importance of rehabilitative activities. In addition, the National Audit Office investigated whether the ministry has considered alternative solutions when drawing up these plans.

For the audit, the strategy documents of the Ministry of Justice, specific data regarding the prison service staff, property costs/repair plans and costs of detaining persons as well as the work, study and training plans of prison officials were analysed. 

Priit Simson
Head of Communications of the National Audit Office of Estonia
+372 640 0102
+372 5615 0280
[email protected]
[email protected]

  • Posted: 10/12/2023 10:00 AM
  • Last Update: 10/12/2023 9:36 AM
  • Last Review: 10/12/2023 9:36 AM

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.

Kristjan Teedema / Postimees / Scanpix

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