Always a Brick Wall
Café Exit is a private initiative in Copenhagen reaching out to inmates and former inmates of Danish prisons who are trying to turn their lives around. Unfortunately, Café Exit is a rare example of an initiative helping this vulnerable group. In many prisoners’ opinion, Danish authorities do not support them when they return to society. ”It’s like banging your head into a brick wall,” says one inmate.
These men are not your ordinary choirboys. They are older, they have tattoos on their arms, and their faces look like they have been the target of a fistfight or two during the years. But it doesn’t matter. Today, they are choirboys singing hymns. Bruno, a big man in a blue shirt and some years older than the rest of the men, sings some solo lines. ”He taught me how to walk, fight, and pray,” he sings in a high voice. Bruno is going back to prison soon, to serve a six-year sentence. ”He’s not getting out before he’s 70,” one of the other men says. The wall behind the choir is decorated with orange and red and a golden cross hangs in its center.
The choir consists of inmates and former inmates from Vestre Fængsel and Vridsløselille, the two major prisons in Copenhagen. They are on leave every last Thursday of the month for Café Exit’s cultural afternoons. Café Exit is a private social initiative that helps prisoners to make a successful return to society by establishing stable lives and avoiding a return to crime. These are difficult goals, but Café Exit hopes to meet them by helping prisoners to find jobs and establish new social networks before and after their release. Today’s, cultural afternoon is in this hall beside a Vesterbro church. The pianist, who directs the choir, introduces its members as well as many other people around the room. “Here we have Thomas, he brought his daughter today. And Jørgen and Bruno. Where’s Johnny?” she asks. “Johnny is probably out playing soccer,” one of the men laughs. The laugh reveals an incomplete row of teeth in his mouth. He lost some of them during his 24 years in Danish prisons. They call him ‘Life Sentence’ Jørgen. In this room, prisoners meet once a month with ex-inmates, volunteers, and family as they prepare for life outside of prison. Together, the 10 men of the choir have served more than 200 years.
Far from a perfect system
To many outside of Denmark, the Danish prison system is an ideal model for rehabilitating criminals—only 35% of ex-inmates will commit another crime within two years of release. However, many prisoners find their return and reintegration into society difficult. Obstacles begin in prison where it is hard to secure an education that will allow prisoners to more easily reenter society. After release, prisoners often find it difficult to break away from their old criminal networks, they find jobs scarce with a criminal record, and their crushing legal fees make earning a decent salary difficult. “We say that you can take the sentence, but the punishment starts when you’re released: That’s where the debt, the social stigma, and the family issues hit you,” explains Ann Skov Sørensen, the director of Café Exit. “When you’re released you have to cope with all these things.”
Wearing a yellow Pennzoil T-shirt, with sunglasses hanging off it, Niels Ludvigsen sits on the church chairs smoking. He wears a heavy sweatshirt despite the afternoon sun and looks haggard at 42 years old. He began crime at 14 with what he describes as “stupid things.” Incarcerated 12 times, he was out of prison for 10 years before being sentenced to three years for robbing a jewelry factory. He laughs as he recalls robbing the factory so he could buy a boat and sail around the world. Each time he was released, it has been a difficult transition. “You don’t walk through the prison gates and say, ‘Now, I’m free.’ You have to get used to it again.” In prison, he has tried to educate himself to prepare for release, but he has found the prison system unwilling to help him pursue a high school education. “I think that they should let me educate myself, let me get a degree, and not put up walls in front of me,” Ludvigsen says. He quickly found that the prison system had little desire for him to attend high school. The prison staff has repeatedly postponed its decision, so Ludvigsen took matters into his own hands and enrolled, calling from prison and paying the deposit himself. “If you want to go to school you have to sign up without the prison knowing and then say, ‘I have to go out.’ You can’t go to the prison authorities. They’ll say, ‘Maybe, maybe.’ They don’t help you the way you hear about it on television,” explains Ludvigsen.
Hannah Hagerup, a social welfare advisor for Danish Prison and Probation Services, recognizes the necessity of providing an education for prisoners, especially since many have completed minimal education. ”It’s important to take care of the problems they have. But then we must look forward. We need to say, ‘What can we do so that you don’t come back,’” Hagerup says as she explains the long term view of Prison and Probation Services and their meetings with prisoners every six months to discuss plans for the future. A high school education is undeniably necessary to pursue a successful life outside of prison. In the prison system, there is no formal opposition to inmates attending high school. But an emphasis on elementary education provides less opportunity to pursue higher education. The combination of a less flexible system and too many slow, bureaucratic channels to navigate unfairly hinders inmates like Ludvigsen from studying at a higher level. “I think that Niels has reached the ceiling. Now the guards won’t let him do anything out of prison until he’s released,” Ann Skov Sørensen explains. “The system is not helping. You have to do it yourself, always yourself. If you have a long sentence, you get a lot of scratches on the forehead. You always run into a wall. Maybe you get a sentence for two years. You learn that you need to put on a helmet. There’s always a brick wall,” Ludvigsen states.
An informal penalty
Returning to society, Ludvigsen and other former prisoners experience severe difficulties finding employment. While the state provides the formal penalty for crime—prison—society provides the informal penalty—unemployment and low wages. “If you have a criminal record—a stain—it’s not easy to find work, and you don’t get much welfare,” Ludvigsen explains. “Because it’s difficult to find work, it’s a vicious cycle starting there.” Criminal records are a red flag and deter potential employers who often have no patience to hear details of the crime. “Your criminal record specifies your crime, but people don’t check. It could be a little crime,” explains Ann Skov Sørensen. Prisoners who seek blue-collar jobs are more successful than those who seek white-collar jobs, and the state does aid in finding jobs for former prisoners, but only for those ages 25 and younger. “When prisoners are over 25, the state more or less forgets about them in the job market, especially if they have drug or alcohol abuse,” explains Sørensen.
Linda Kjær Minke, a Ph.D. student at the University of Copenhagen Law School, highlights, “People with short sentences are ignored in the system.” A recent study shows that those who serve a sentence of less than six months and find work will earn an average 15% less than those who have not been incarcerated. Those who serve a sentence of more than six months will earn 25% less. The likelihood to require welfare also increases radically with any form of incarceration. After their release, prisoners are two and a half times more likely than those who have not been incarcerated to be on welfare.
However, hiring former inmates, especially repeat offenders, is high-risk for employers. Criminal records often indicate drug addictions, violence, and other offences. While criminal records do not necessarily describe a former inmate after release, they give a significant picture of the inmate’s past. Hannah Hagerup points out that it is now easier for former inmates to find employment in Denmark’s current economic boom. ”To get work for inmates before release is one of our main goals. It’s easier for them to get out if they have a job. But luckily, because of the low unemployment rate, it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. There is large interest from a lot of big companies in our prisoners because the companies need employees.”Given about 470 Kroner (100 USD) upon release, former inmates have to visit three different offices after their release to secure any support. Ex-inmates often have little money the first month because welfare does not begin until the first of the next month. “The first month is very dangerous,” explains Sørensen. After the first month, former inmates with little money and poor prospects for the future often find it tempting to return to crime. Ludvigsen recalls: “If you want to buy a new television or sofa, you cannot save enough money from welfare. You see that all your friends have new things and you can’t find work because of your criminal record. Crime is easy money—you can make 10, 15, or 20,000 Kroner. So it’s easy to commit crimes when you are sitting at home without anything. You don’t think about the consequences.”
Treating prisoners like humans
The voices of the choir drift out through the church windows. The courtyard is full of prisoners, their families, priests, and members of Café Exit who mill about in the afternoon sun. The inmates are dressed in their best clothing and most have slicked back hair. They’re free to walk around the church, courtyard, and out to the street to speak to anyone they wish, but not into any stores. Ann Skov Sørensen explains that the prisoners who are here on parole for the day—and were driven here by priests—know the rules. If they violate the agreement, they will not be allowed back. Café Exit rests on the principle of treating the incarcerated like people, separated from the crimes that they have committed.
The children of the inmates happily run around, enjoying the opportunity to see their fathers. One of them climbs up the wall around the church and walks around it. Another comes up to her father and asks if she can go out and play around in the Vesterbro neighborhood with her friends. Spirits are high and light at the event. The inmates are free for the afternoon to be with their families at an event outside of prison, as they once were and soon hope to be again. “At a place like Café Exit, ex-prisoners are looked at as people. In the system, they are not,” explains Linda Kjær Minke.
Opening its doors in November 2007, Café Exit is nascent and hopes to grow larger. Currently, it is a small café in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro with a small office behind it. Officially open two days a week with former prisoners serving cookies and coffee, in reality, Café Exit is open every day for three or four hours. Director Ann Skov Sørensen sends a text message each day to the network of interested people informing them what time the Café will be open the following day. Each week, she sees about 20 prisoners and ex-prisoners. Some of the visitors are currently incarcerated and drop by for a cup of coffee after work or school before returning to prison. She estimates that about 100 inmates and former inmates are involved in the network.
The Café serves as a social networking tool for prisoners who struggle after release to remove themselves from criminal networks and establish new ones. Half the visitors to Café Exit are people who have no criminal record. Sørensen explains that these visitors are essential to helping prisoners and ex-prisoners establish new networks.
Café Exit’s job consultant works with inmates to find jobs while incarcerated and after their release. By explaining the details of a criminal record to employers, the consultant improves the likelihood of employment for inmates and former inmates. Inmates are also more likely to be released early if they have work outside of prison. One of the more flashily dressed prisoners at Café Exit’s cultural event works for an advertising agency during the day, a job which Café Exit helped to establish, and returns to prison at night. Café Exit is working with the prison system to request more paroles for prisoners to pursue job and social-networking opportunities.
While many of the prisoners at the Café Exit event are surrounded by their families, some are not. “It’s important for many prisoners that we’re here. Some of them have been in prison for so long that they have no network and no family. If you don’t have anyone to see, you cannot leave prison,” Sørensen explains. “You need someone to sign their release papers to get a leave from prison. Café Exit is trying to become an address that can sign for people and take these very lonely people.”
Inmates on probation can be honest with Café Exit’s staff about their situations and difficulties since it’s a private initiative. Danish Prison and Parole Services must report any illegal activity of those on probation. “People, who have had a difficult experience in prison, have a ‘fuck the system’ mentality and find it difficult to consider working within the system. You can become frustrated with the control net spread in society,” says Linda Kjær Minke. “Working in the system becomes dangerous for prisoners. With an independent group like Café Exit, you are able to be honest about your actions and have a friendly talk. It’s absolutely impossible to be frank within the system. Because of this, the system is inherently flawed.”
Café Exit is partially funded by the Ministry of Labor. Private donations provide the remainder of the funding. Experts agree that private initiatives are efficient and necessary for prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration. Peter Scharff Smith, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights specializing in imprisonment, says: “Initiatives like Café Exit are brilliant, because they take over and help prisoners reintegrate.” Many experts argue that private initiatives like Café Exit should be completely funded by the state.
By gathering a group of inmates who want to change their lives, Café Exit helps prisoners make new friends who share the common goal of creating stable, crime-free lives. “When you get out of prison, there are the same guys standing down on the corner. You need help to find a new network and friendships. That’s one of the main purposes of Café Exit—to find a new network,” says Niels Ludvigsen. “Most of the men in the prison choir have been in prison for 16, 20, 24 years. They really know what they’re talking about. When most of these young guys in their first or second sentence hear from the older guys ‘I know what this is about and it’s not a good idea,’ they listen,” Sørensen explains. “I think that getting this across in this project is very important.” Sørensen tells the story of ‘Life Sentence’ Jørgen who nobody thought would get out of prison. However, he started singing in the Vridsløselille prison choir, went to Café Exit after being released, and still sings in the prison choir. Until he drunkenly resigned his post today, he hosted afternoons at the Café. He shows that the road to a stable, crime free life is difficult. Still, Sørensen is optimistic: “That’s the great thing about Café Exit. There are enough elements that you can stop one and keep up the others. Perhaps, the choir will be enough to keep Jørgen on track.”
Jail House Rock
His phone is ringing in the pocket of his tight jeans. It has a silver charm and is playing “Blue Suede Shoes,” the Elvis rock and roll standard. And that is no coincidence. ”Hello,” answers Thomas Elvis Husum, a well-known man in the Danish prison system. He is 32, but already a senior in terms of crime. When asked how many times he has been to jail, he laughs and asks: ”Does everything count?” If everything counts, he has been imprisoned more than 16 times, including sentences in Sweden and Poland. His dark, greasy hair is slicked back and his black T-shirt is emblazoned with an enormous picture of Elvis.
He was released four weeks ago to the day. The most difficult period is the first four weeks, and Husum succeeded in staying clean and out of trouble. He was a drug addict for years. Since being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) three years ago and developing a heart infection, he hasn’t done drugs or committed a crime. All of his crimes were drug related, Husum says. ”I had an angry feeling like I had a sander inside of me since I was a little boy,” he explains. ”And the only way I felt like I could stop it was through drugs.” Like everybody else who’s struggling to get out of a life of crime, he stresses the need for a new network between prisoners and people on the outside. Former inmates get out of prison and end up with their old friends. “Café Exit is a genius and perfect program. It keeps you motivated. You meet a lot of people who have the same dreams and want to make a difference. They really want to change their lives,” he says. ”They don’t want to stay stuck in the same circles of crime.” His belt seems homemade; it says ‘THOMAS’ in capitalized, white letters on the black leather.
Husum has been commuting in and out of Danish prisons for the last 10 or 12 years. Like many prisoners, he feels that the Danish system let him down upon release. ”You have nothing the first month after being released from prison. When on welfare you have to wait for the first of the next month to receive any support,” he says. The easy solution is to go back to old, criminal habits and network to make money. That is why it is crucial to give ex-inmates the chance to establish new social networks. Ann Skov Sørensen explains the formula for a successful return to society: “It’s all about networking and finding people who see you as a person and not someone defined through what you’ve done. In a way, having this network gives you a way to have a friendly atmosphere and have someone who will pick up the phone when you call.”
And according to Peter Scharff Smith establishing a new social network is critical. “A lot of prisoners experience that they are on their own. And then it is easy to fall back into your criminal social circles.” Hannah Hagerup agrees with Smith, Husum, and Sørensen: ”We know it’s very hard to come out again and start a new life if everything you have is the same relationships and old friends. It takes a long time,” she says. But according to Smith a lot can be done, even before the prisoners get out of prison. The key is normalization: The system should make prisons as close to the outside world as possible. ”Obviously, the system doesn’t work very well. You are isolated when you are in prison. Internet is a good example. We all use it all the time and it is part of our working experience and social life. And they just don’t have access in the prisons,” he says. Prisoners return to a society that has significantly evolved. According to the principle of normalization, the system should make the transition as smooth as possible. But that is not what prisoners experience. By essentially removing access to a high school education and the outside world via the Internet, the Danish prison system denies prisoners skills and information necessary to be successful after release. While inmates have difficulty establishing new social networks, they also face enormous legal fees upon release.
“Shaving a bald man?”
“Paying off my legal debt of 780,000 Kroner (154,205 USD) is only possible if I win the lottery,” Thomas Elvis Husum says. “As we say in Danish, you can’t shave a bald man.” And that is the core of most prisoners’ problems. “One of the main problems prisoners have is debt. Denmark is one of the few nations in which you have to pay your legal fees. And if you have children, you have to pay social support,” Ann Skov Sørensen explains and gives an example. ”One of the inmates has been in prison for 16 years and has four children. He has to pay money to their mother each month. The state takes over and pays when he is in prison. He owes his own legal fees but he also has to pay the courts for what it has cost to run his case and then he has to pay social costs.”
Linda Kjær Minke agrees: The combination of unemployment and large legal debt is debilitating. Minke shows us one of many bills from the Danish tax authorities. This one casually requests that the incarcerated inmate pay 893,369.52 Kroner (189,000 USD, see above) within 20 days as if it were a bill for a magazine subscription. “He is cursed for life. He cannot own anything. If he gets a job, the Danish tax system will take 15-20% of all his income. What kind of jobs can prisoners get? Mostly low paying jobs. It’s impossible to make a day’s living. It’s easy if you were a skilled drug dealer to return to that trade,” Minke says. Experts argue that Denmark’s unique system should be changed to remove this unnecessary burden on former inmates. Denmark’s unique requirement that prisoners pay their legal fees places an unfair burden upon this minority. It also makes a return to any ‘stable’ life almost impossible.
But seen from Prison and Probation Services, it isn’t that easy. Hannah Hagerup explains: “It can sometimes seem impossible to pay off. Of course, it can be a problem. But maybe, sometimes, it is an excuse. They would say: ‘It’s hopeless. I have this debt so I might as well go out and commit crime again.’ You have to be very careful not to use it as an excuse. But I fully understand that it is a problem,” she says. But she is not sure that the law should be changed. ”We try to help inmates arrange part-payment settlements and debt-restructuring if possible. For many, it seems difficult to get on with your life if you have debt.” she explains.
“Your kisses lift me higher, like the sweet song of a choir, you light my morning sky, with burning love,” he sings aggressively. The guitar around his neck sends out a massive wall of chords. Thomas Elvis Husum has a dream of playing the guitar and teaching music. So far, most of his life has been in a prison cell, but he has done a little teaching. Husum is doing what he loves, standing in front of the audience with his guitar. He has been free for four weeks now, and he is absolutely sure that he is not going back. In January, he is starting an education program to become a music teacher, the education that he has always wanted. “This has been my dying wish for 10 years. I always knew what I wanted. As an addict for 10 years, I had breaks. At one point, I taught music to kids who came from families with different kinds of problems. When I got up in the morning, I felt happy,” he says. But sadly, it is very normal that the prisoners believe that they are not going back in. Niels Ludvigsen is being released in January 2009: “I have a daughter. I’m 42—too old to sit in prison—I want to get a degree and help others. I get a warm feeling when I help others.” He might succeed. But one out of three is going back in and, with Ludvigsen and Husum’s backgrounds, it is likely to be one of them. Or both. And the system is not providing much support. ”With all the things we do, we are trying to bring down the percentage of people coming back. I think we are doing a good job. But of course you can always do it better,” Hannah Hagerup says. Linda Kjær Minke argues that the informal penalty imposed by society after release is unnecessary: “Being imprisoned is being punished with the loss of liberty—that’s enough.” ”Just a hunk, a hunk of burning love!” The song is getting faster; his hands fly over the strings of the guitar. He reaches the climax of the song and strikes a final chord that rings out of the little amplifier.The small crowd in the church erupts.
Hagerup, Hannah. Social Welfare Advisor, Kriminalforsorgen / Department of Prison and Probation Services. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2008.
Henriksen, Michael. Inmate, Statsfaengslet ved Horserød Prison. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 26, 2008.
Husum, Thomas Elvis. Ex-inmate. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 26, 2008.
Minke, Linda Kjær. Ph.D. student, University of Copenhagen Law School. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2008.
Ludvigsen, Niels. Inmate, Statsfængslet ved Horserød Prison. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 26, 2008.
Smith, Peter Scharff. Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for Human Rights. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2008.
Sørensen, Ann Skov. Director, Café Exit. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 27, 2008.
Tranæs, Torben and Lars Pico Geerdsen. “Kriminelle betaler høj pris efter endt straf” / “Criminals pay the penalty after their release.” Rockwool Fonden/Rockwool Foundation (June 2008),http://www.rff.dk/fileadmin/dokumenter/Danske_nyhedsbreve/nyhedsbrev_juni_2008.pdf