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What the Difference: The “Problem of Ethnic Minorities in the Danish Prison and Probation System

The front page on the June 24, 2000 issue of the Berlingske Tidende featured the following headline: “Imprisoned New Danes Create Disorder. Violence and Terror Among New Danes in the Prisons”. The article states that New Danes in prison are a source of great trouble and that their situation needs to be discussed and addressed accordingly. This article is one out of many creating a picture in the media of the New Danes as a group of maladjusted youth unable to integrate into Danish society. They are often portrayed as criminal and aggressive, and the cause of many conflicts and problems. In addition, they are characterized as middle-eastern Muslims with a distinct culture from that of “normal” Danes. This image is further reflected within the Danish Prison system, where ethnic minorities are perceived as a particularly violent, aggressive group. They are commonly perceived as disrespectful and disobedient toward authority, particularly toward female guards. Due to seemingly insurmountable cultural obstacles, there is a clear distinction that limits the equal coexistence of the two. 

In 1999, as a part of the government’s Integration Act, the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Prison and Probation Services, led by William Rentzmann, created a committee of 8 experts to deal specifically with ethnic minorities among the clients of the Prison and Probation Services (CEM). The committee consists of in-house experts from various positions within the prison system, as well as two members not directly employed by the prison department. According to Jens Tolstrup, chairman of the committee and governor of the Closed State Prison in Nyborg, the group’s purpose is twofold: to discover if there are, in fact, problems pertaining specifically to ethnic minorities in prison, as well as to predict possible future scenarios that may occur as a result of such problems. While the first half of the committee’s mission is to decide if problems do exist, the very creation of such a committee assumes that there is a concrete problem in need of attention. Suprisingly, however, the CEM is finding that the reality of the “ethnic minority problem” is less concrete than the political and popular debate suggests. While the actual conclusions will not be determined until September 1st of this year, members of the committee have been actively visiting prisons throughout the country, conducting surveys, speaking with inmates, guards, and staff in order to construe various perceptions of the “problem” of ethnic minorities in prisons.  

Statistically speaking, there is little evidence supporting the idea that the ethnic minorities are particularly violent or aggressive in relation to other Danish prisoners. A 1999 study by the Ministry of Justice entitled “Placering af Indsatte” (The Placement of Inmates), outlines the composition and social background of the clients of the Prison and Probation system. As Tolstrup points out, “there is no significant difference between Danes and foreigners”. Such statistics refute the popular notion of a certain definitive link between ethnic background and criminality. In response to concerns voiced among the various prison staffs, CEM seeks to search beyond the numerical facts and to pursue personal testimony from people within the prison system.  CEM is finding that apart from a few certain exceptions, the reality behind the ethnic minority problem in prison is different from the generally accepted view. Much of Tolstrup’s experience points toward the individuality of the inmates, and discourages the tendency to define ethnic minorities and their behavior in such a way that groups them together. As he states, “It is very individual, as it is with Danes...” According to Tolstrup, there is very little racism among the prisoners, or tensions due to their ethnic backgrounds. Hans Jørgen Engbo, governor of the Open State Prison at Jyderup, supports this claim. He agrees that there are very few problems due uniquely to the presence of ethnic minorities in the prison. “…Because each group consists of such different persons, that it makes no sense to talk about ethnic minorities or Danes as behaving in different ways… I can’t see a pattern that distinguishes the ethnic group from the Danes”.   

Nonetheless, one would be naïve to deny all suggestions of problems relating specifically to New Danes in prison. In the State Prison of Ringe, for example, problems clearly pertaining to ethnic minorities do exist. They are generally outlined as follows: the ethnic minorities group together, threaten the staff and other inmates, lack respect toward authority and female staff, and control the drug market within the prison. According to Bodil Philip’s, governor of the Closed State Prison of Ringe, problems with New Danes in prison are due to cultural and language differences, such as attitudes, values, the nature of interaction, and tastes of food and music. The fact remains that there are problems unique to ethnic minorities at Ringe, which the CEM acknowledges.

A problem arises, however, when this specific instance is generalized to concern all ethnic minorities within the entire Danish prison system. In the article in Berlingske Tidende, the author uses Ringe as his main support of how ethnic minorities create problems within the prison system in general. By focusing on Ringe alone, the author generalizes the situation of ethnic minorities in prison and represents the broader picture in an inaccurate and distorted way. 

The State Prison at Jyderup reflects a very different atmosphere in regard to the question of ethnic minorities, which refutes the picture created by Ringe. Despite the fact that the percentage of ethnic minorities is 18.33%, Jyderup lacks many of the problems otherwise attributed to their presence in the prisons. As Engbo describes, “I haven’t heard about any problems within the prison, even though I can’t say that there aren’t any. But we haven’t had any more problems in the last 10 years due to people with a foreign background.” While Engbo has seen a growing population of minority inmates, he does not feel that there has been a subsequent increase in the suggested problems. Here, unlike in Ringe, there is not a direct correlation between the presence of ethnic minorities and the existence of problems due to these minorities. The testimony of Gitte, a young, blond, attractive, female guard at Jyderup, further complicates the common perception that ethnic minority men are particularly disrespectful toward women. She recognizes that many ethnic minorities have difficulty with her position of power due to her gender. “ They aren’t used to (the fact) that the women tell them when they should go to bed, when they should turn out the light, etc.” However, is it only an ethnic question to respond negatively to such demands? Is it because she is a female, or because she as authority figure, or both? According to Rentzmann, a concrete difference between ethnic minorities and Danes exists due to their cultural perceptions of gender. However, Gitte stresses that this is not a problem inherent in all ethnic minorities, and applies to many Danes as well. “It takes longer to get respect and to overcome cultural differences, but then it is the same… It is an issue of respect”. While cultural gender norms may create initial problems between the male ethnic prisoners and female guards, they are overcome when dealt with in a respectful manner.

Furthermore, individual interaction between staff members and inmates is of great importance to the issue of ethnic minority behavior in prison. In Gitte´s experience, the inmates’ reactions to her in Jyderup vary according to their feelings toward her as a person. “If they like you, then [the relations] are good, if they dislike [you], it is bad”. Just as she stresses the variation among the inmates’ reactions toward her, she also emphasises differences among the attitudes of the guards toward the prisoners. She sights her mutually respectful relationship with “the guys”, be them ethnic minority or not, as a striking comparison to some of her co-workers. She explains that many female staff members have prejudices toward ethnic minorities from outside the prisons, and treat them accordingly. Consequently, the “hostile” and “aggressive” behavior of the inmates is a reaction to the treatment they receive. Gitte views the tensions within the prison as a direct correlation to the greater society: “The prison reflects the outside ‘double up’”. 

Engbo agrees that outside biases greatly influence the initial interactions between the inmates and guards within the prisons. However, he continues to explain that upon the close exposure that the men are forced to experience within the prison, major ethnic tensions fade away.  “Here you get to know them. If you know people you donut have hostile attitude”. Clearly the individual interactions among the inmates and prisoners is significant in dealing with the greater problems of ethnic minorities in prison. 

Bodil Philip, however, does identify a clear problem due to the grouping of ethnic minorities in prison. In her experience, she sees the tendency for ethnic minority groups to stick together as a threat. She supports the idea that members of such groups should be spread out in order to avoid grouping and encourage integration. “They now live in Denmark and are supposed to be Danish”. To Philip, it seems that grouping of New Danes is a problem because it is very visible and threatening, and creates tense interactions. A common complaint among her staff is the language barrier. According to her, the staff members become uncomfortable when the inmates speak in “Arabic” because “one gets the feeling, that they are talking about you”. She also cites cultural misunderstandings as potential problems. In regard to food, for example, that she is unsure whether certain requests come directly from the rules of the Koran, or from mere personal preference. In an attempt to break down these barriers, the staff received a lecture in cultural differences. She is also in favour of hiring staff members of ethnic background in order to facilitate better communication and understanding between other Danish inmates and staff, and the ethnic minority groups. Rentzmann adds that one of the reasons to hire staff with another ethnic background would be in hopes of “overcoming the cultural gap” above and beyond language issues.

Another problematic factor in the popular opinion is the tendency to generalize all ethnic minorities into one fixed image, and to categorize all “ethnic minorities” as “New Danes”. Just as it is misrepresentative to use Ringe to identify a problem within the entire prison system, it is a problem to characterize ethnic minorities in a one- dimensional manner. Due to the variety of circumstances surrounding the inmate’s ethnic as well as criminal background, it is clear that the definition of ethnic minorities in prison is ambiguous at best. In Engbo’s opinion, the ethnic minority experience is similar regardless of origin: “There is no difference between Swedish, Norwegian, or Somalian ethnic minorities”. However, due to a type of consortium between the Scandinavian prison systems, prisoners caught in Denmark with Norwegian or Swedish background would often be sent back to their country of origin to accept their sentence in their native country. Therefore, while in theory the discussion of ethnic minorities in prison encompasses all non-Danes, in practice it tends to revolve selectively around certain cultural groups and categorize them to represent all ethnic minorities, while clearly leaving other “non-Danish” groups out of the equation.  

Following the CEM’s investigations, Tolstrup sees another main problem in defining the circumstances behind the criminality of the ethnic minorities in question. This committee was formed as a subset to an overall Integration Act for all aspects of greater Danish society.  The subsequent implication would be that the ethnic minorities at question are somehow linked to Danish society before going to prison, and that the problems that they cause in prison reflect an overall problem generated in greater Danish society. However, many ethnic minorities currently in prison have no connection to Danish society, and can in no way be considered “New Danes”. Where does an Ecuadorian drug courier, caught stopping over in Copenhagen on her way to Amsterdam, fit into this equation? Acting as a mere messenger for a faraway source, she suddenly finds herself in a Danish prison, miles away from her family and friends, somehow falling under the general category of ethnic minorities in prison. She doesn’t speak the Danish language, and will be expelled upon the conclusion of her sentence. While she qualifies as an ethnic minority in the Danish prison system, she certainly is not part of a discussion regarding the master Integration Act in Denmark. Can her circumstances really be discussed on the same level as Ibrahim, a Turkish Muslim living in Denmark since he was nine months old, who is in a Danish prison for murder? Or, for that matter, what about the man born and raised in Denmark who never obtained citizenship? Legally, once his sentence concludes, he could be expelled to his country of citizenship, which he has never even visited. As Tolstrup describes, this situation may create great frustration for the inmate. “They have tempers because of their insecure situation; or, they may be suicidal. This is the mechanism which, of course, is at work.”  With the clear discrepancies among the circumstances surrounding each inmate’s situation, it is problematic to attempt to deal with them as a general “ethnic problem”. One general image could not possibly characterize all of the variation of backgrounds and circumstances of these ethnic minorities. 

Tolstrup discusses concrete statistical differences between foreigners and Danes in regard to the nature of their criminality. However, he attributes this not to a certain ethnic tendency, but rather to an overall misrepresentation.  “There is an over-representation [of ethnic minorities] in drug trafficking. But that is natural: we pick them up in the airport. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t see them. They would go to Amsterdam or London and sell their drugs there.”  This over-representation creates a distortion of reality, and skews the facts to generalize a greater problem with ethnic minorities. The fact that those caught at the airport attempting to traffic drugs into Denmark are primarily of non-Danish origin can not lead to a direct conclusion that ethnic minorities are more prone to drug related activity. 

The comparison between Ringe and Jyderup proves that there is not a concrete link between ethnicity and problems in the Danish prisons. Is it possible, then, that ethnicity could be taken out of the equation, and that other factors besides ethnicity should be addressed?. According to Tolstrup, part of the problems that we see in Ringe as well as some of the Copenhagen prisons could be attributed to other factors besides ethnicity. Perhaps the problem in Ringe is due to the age of the inmates, regardless of ethnicity. “All young ones [in the prison system] in general have a problem with authority-- Danes also”. Furthermore, he proposes the idea that the grouping that occurs within Ringe could be compared to past grouping experiences of biker gangs. These men were part of an organized community outside the prison, and therefor organised within the prison walls as well. 

Perhaps the whole issue is not only whether or not a problem with ethnic minorities exists or to what extent there is a problem, but also how the majority of Danes perceive the minority. This is reflected in the formation of the CEM. As Engbo states “It is not necessary to have a committee dealing especially with minority groups, but it is necessary to have a change of attitude among many Danes…The reason for forming this committee is in order to be politically correct. You get a clear conscience by making one committee after the other dealing with ethnic minorities. But you are taking part in maintaining some differences that are not there. Instead this is all about some universally human opinions…The only point in singling out the ethnic minorities is to mark the Danes as a group.” Simply in its formation, the CEM is addressing “presumed” problems pertaining to ethnic minorities in prison, and thereby promoting the perception of their being problematic. 

As Jørgen Bæk Simonsen, member of the CEM and senior lecturer at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute, expresses, “The outline for the committee is questionable as it arises out of the public debate. It is the self-perpetuating statements in the press that is the basis of the outline. They are examples of the discourses that are expressed by others about someone…that is a dangerous tendency as it is also turning it into a cultural problem, culturalizing the whole issue”.

As John Holm, member of the CEM and head of the West District Department, points out, it is now “politically correct” to discuss issues specifically pertaining to ethnic minorities. He views the CEM as an agent for such a discussion within the Danish prison system. “It is the first time it is politically correct to talk about the problems there are with New Danes because until now it has been allowed to talk about the drug addicts, the alcoholics and the biker groups as creating problems but not about the New Danes”. However, while this may seem as progress in many ways, it is still assuming first and foremost that there is in fact a problem. 

The tendency of the majority to always focus on only the problems related to ethnic minorities reinforces the presumption that the ethnic minorities are, in fact, creating problems. Additionally, the issue is being turned into a cultural problem, making it even more difficult to overcome the existing obstacles, as culture is being seen as something inherent in the persons.

Essentially, the foundation of the CEM can be seen as part of dealing with ethnic minorities on the basis of the assumption that they are a problematic group, and in this way, reinforcing the popular opinion that already exists. Taking the different perspectives into consideration, one might ask the following question: Is actual difference, or the perception and creation of difference, the core of “ethnic minority problems” in the Danish prison system?



Articles found in Politiken’s database Polinfo using the key word “straffeattest” (1999-2000) 

Direktoratet for Kriminalforsorgen (2000). Placering af Indsatte. Vol. 2

Klettheyggj, Elkin (1999). “Straffeattester vurderes meget forskellipt”. In Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab 1999 vol. 5

Kolind, Torben (1 999). “Den betingede accept” in: Nordisk Tidsshrift for Kriminalvidenskab 1999 vol.1

Kyvsgaard, Britta (1989). Og faengslet ta’r de sidste. Jurist- og Økonomiforbundets forlag.

Kyvsgaard, Britta (1998). Kriminalforsorg i frihed, Tranberg, Pernille (2000). Articles in Politiken (2000)

Web sites:




Bo (pseudonym of an ex-prisoner on probation)

Bonnez, Claus, Lawyer and chairman of KRIM 

Engbo, Hans Jørgen, Prison governor of Jyderup Statsfaengsel 

Jansen, Brian, Prisoner at Jyderup Statsfaengsel

Johansen, Hans R., Personnel manager of Penta Service 

Jørgensen, Nete, Social adviser from Kriminalforsorgen on Vesterbro 

Kronkvist, Annette Graver, Social adviser from Kriminalforsorgen on Vesterbro 

Nadelmann, Ivan, Owner of Avis Denmark. 

Rentzmann, William, Director of Kriminalforsorgen. 

Snedker, Annette, Social adviser from Kriminalforsorgen in Svendborg 

Thussen, Christian, Hiring Consultant for ISS.


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