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When Countries “Export” Inmates To Foreign Prisons

A recent report revealed that Denmark plans to rent prison cells abroad, raising troubling questions about the expanding global trade in penitentiary services.

When Countries “Export” Inmates To Foreign Prisons

Inside a prison in Norway

Carl Karlsson

In January 1788, 11 British ships carrying convicts arrived at the shores of the colony of New South Wales, effectively founding Australia. In the 80 years that followed, with British cities filling up and petty crime proliferating, more than 160,000 prisoners would arrive down under from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Fast forward to 2021, and punishment by exile has mostly been abolished, with colonial powers like France and Britain closing their last overseas penal institutions around the time of World War II. But while these outposts are associated with oppression and atrocity today, the export of prisoners has nonetheless survived, and is now experiencing something of a revival.


The Danish daily Politiken reported in November that it had obtained a secret memo in which the government of Denmark plans to rent prison cells in foreign countries to reduce the strain on the national system. Already in 2019, Danish media reported that the rise in gang crime had led to overcrowding, with correction facilities turning common areas and libraries into holding cells.

Renting 300 cells abroad

Today, as the number of inmates continues to increase and penitentiary staff quit their jobs, the government is looking to spend one billion DKK (€130 million) on renting 300 cells abroad over a four-year period.

In mid-December, the government announced that a deal had been broken with Kosovo where inmates due to be deported after their sentences will be accommodated. According to a statement by the Danish Ministry of Justice, the deal will give Denmark time to expand its own prison capacity.

Critics say Dutch standards were not in line with the Norwegian approach of focusing on rehabilitation.

Globally, with the prison population reaching a record 20 million last year — a 20% increase in the last two decades — and the distribution of prisoners between countries becoming increasingly uneven, new questions arise as the penal system becomes a fully integrated part of our globalized economy.

The Norway-Netherlands deal, which expired in 2018, drew criticism from organizations suggesting that Dutch standards were not in line with the Norwegian approach of focusing on rehabilitation. The same debate over how to enforce national standards abroad arose in Denmark in 2017, when the government suggested sending convicted criminals to Lithuania and Romania to serve their sentences in their countries of origin.

A view on the "De Schie" prison in Rotterdam

Utrecht/Action Press/ZUMA

Conflicting legal systems and standards

Of course, that issue is perhaps manageable when the exchange occurs between two countries like Denmark and the Netherlands — both with publicly-run and comparably liberal prison systems. But globalization, as we know by now, rarely confines itself to parity or proportion, and it invites us to imagine a future where more countries with very different legal frameworks and cultural norms — such as Denmark and Kosovo — start swapping inmates and attempt to enforce their own policies abroad.

One particularly troubling example is the U.S.’s decades-long program to build prisons abroad and train foreign officials to run them like American correctional facilities. The decades-long U.S. War on Drugs, which began in Latin America during the early 2000s, is currently involved in the prison systems of 38 countries. In Colombia, media reported in 2017 that U.S.-trained Colombian prison officers had been accused of human rights abuses and overcrowding had increased. The widespread use of solitary confinement was also criticized by civil rights groups.

For Norway, the three-year deal with the Netherlands was deemed necessary in order to overcrowding at home — and so it might be now for Denmark. But as we set new standards for the handling of inmates, we should do so both with the grim history of penal colonies in mind, as well as the more recent examples of globalization’s pernicious effects on society’s most vulnerable.

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