Letting the genie out by Quentin Bates

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In the not-too-distant past, Iceland didn’t even have a prison worth the name. Police stations had a couple of cells, mostly for letting the Saturday night drunks sleep it off and the old jail on Skólavödurstígur in Reykjavík had cells for anything more, but that was about it. Rare cases of anyone facing a serious sentence had to be sent abroad to do their time.

The bloodthirsty abandon with which Icelanders of the Saga Age pursued feuds was left behind in the Saga Age and there wasn’t much by the way of crime. Reykjavík was probably the safest capital city in the world, maybe with the exception of Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands, which probably still is the safest.

There were a good few fights, plus a good deal of white-collar crime that was let pass with a nod and a wink, but nobody was going to get mugged after a night out. You could go out and leave your front door unlocked, especially outside Reykjavík.

Icelandic crime was a generally a clumsy, ill-thought out rarity and a society where everyone is related to practically everyone else, there was no point robbing a bank. With no opportunity to spend the proceeds without someone asking where that new Porsche had come from, there simply wasn’t a lot of point. Robbing the bank would have been the easy part. Disappearing with the cash is the problem. More recently, Iceland’s banks have all been ruthlessly pillaged, but that was done by a new breed of university-educated villain and from the inside.

Travelling to Reykjavík once in the 80s from the village in northern Iceland we lived in, we decided to leave the car at Akranes and take the old Akraborg ferry across Faxa Bay. On the way, we thought it might be an idea to lock the car – but found that as none of the doors had ever been locked, all of the locks had fused solid. It didn’t help that as well as being unable to lock our old Mitsubishi, the ignition switch had long ago jammed and been bypassed, so we habitually started it with the screwdriver that was kept in the pocket of the door for just that purpose. But it was still there at Akranes when we came back a few days later.

Not that this would happen today. The ferry across Faxa Bay has long gone, made redundant by the Hvalfjördur tunnel and the couple of prisons that Iceland has are crammed to bursting and beyond. With a judiciary that hands down lenient sentences for even violent crimes that would carry much higher penalties anywhere else, ordinary Icelanders have little faith in their system of justice. But even with short sentences cut even shorter for good behaviour, there are waiting lists for prison.

It can take a couple of years for someone convicted of a crime to be summoned to sit out a sentence. It’s not uncommon for people to find themselves called in to do some porridge for a youthful and half-forgotten stupidity, forced to leave jobs and young children to fret behind bars for a few months.

The criminal justice system has been woefully underfunded and overstretched for years, unable to keep pace with a rising rate of crime that has mushroomed as Iceland turned itself into a consumer paradise, and in particular since the 2008 crash, since when unemployment has hit record levels and acquisitive crime took another leap. Iceland’s law enforcement had already been cut back during the ‘boom’ years, and has again been slashed as public services as a whole have been forced to draw in their horns in the face of less cash available from government.

Iceland’s stripped-to-the-bone law enforcement is very much at odds with rising crime over the last twenty years, but in line with twenty years of government that glorified privatisation and hived off every aspect of public service that could be got rid of to the private sector.

Icelanders bemoan the fact that these days there are areas of Reykjavík it wouldn’t be wise to stroll through after dark. A few decades ago Iceland was a sleepy backwater where virtually nobody lived in poverty and at the other end of the scale nobody was obscenely rich. Today Iceland is as class-ridden as anywhere else, courtesy of a consumer boom that saw the creation of hitherto unknown wealth and poverty at the two ends of the social spectrum.

In the meantime, there’s sporadic discussion over building the new prison that was needed five years ago. Iceland certainly wasn’t prepared for the consumer boom, but is starting the painful process of recovery, but neither was it prepared for the consumer boom’s evil twin.

It’s all very well bemoaning an increasing rate of crime, including a startling level of casual violence that belongs more properly in the Saga Age. But this is part and parcel of the consumer society that Icelanders embraced so wholeheartedly. The big jeeps, the smart new kitchens, three holidays a year, the monster flatscreens and all the other paraphernalia are all very well, but the genie is well and truly out of the bottle and the muggings, drug culture, burglaries, thefts and even the increased rate of serious crime such as rape and murder are all part of the package. You can’t have one without the other, and the clock can’t be turned back.

Of course, for a budding crime writer, it’s a gift. There is so much turmoil and confusion at every level of society that material practically sprouts for the walls. But it’s a deeply unpleasant learning process for anyone who grew up able to sleep soundly, knowing that his car keys had been left in the ignition.

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