TALLINN - It used to be said that Estonians would line up for anything during the Soviet era, from bananas to blue jeans. But that all changed with independence. Yet in today's EU Estonia, almost 900 people are stuck in line for a most unlikely commodity - a prison cell. Not only are Estonian criminals willing to wait for their incarceration, they're also angered by anyone who skips in line.
Estonia is currently experiencing a shortage in detention cells, brought about by a change in the justice system that allows people to serve out short sentences for minor offenses rather than pay a fine.
Tallinn and its surrounding Harju County are experiencing the greatest strain on prison resources, with 520 convicted "detainees" awaiting their place in jail.
Parnu County is also under pressure, with some 350 people on the waiting list. A handful of others are waiting out their turn in various counties across the country.
The jail lines were revealed last week after a pair of Dutch motorists were caught speeding through Parnu County at nearly 140 kilometers per hour in a 70 km/h zone.
The two speedsters, who were taking part in The Challenge 2006 rally from Amsterdam to St Petersburg, were sentenced to 10 days imprisonment each.
The local media was outraged that the Dutch drivers were allowed to begin serving their sentences immediately 's ahead of the 350 local offenders waiting in line. Even when going to jail, Estonians still want to be first in line
The justice system makes a distinction between "jail" and "detention houses." Jail is reserved for serious offenses, while detention houses are used for those committing administrative and traffic offenses for up to thirty days.
But in some counties, the jail and detention house are the same place, and the difference between prisoners and detainees is merely a bureaucratic name-change.
The conditions for detainees can sometimes be more onerous 's they are not allowed to receive packages or visitors, while some prisoners enjoy these perks.
Tartu University senior lecturer in criminology, Jaan Ginter, said the detention cell shortage was not a major problem. In some cases, it could even assist in deterring recidivist behavior, he said.
"In an ideal world, there should be enough cells available all the time. But the problem is not urgent, because the queue is not so long," Ginter said.
He added that although there was the potential that waiting list offenders could leave the country, he did not consider it likely as they signed bail-style undertakings.
While the detention houses are under strain, the Justice Ministry was at pains to point out that there was no line for serious offenders sentenced to 'jails' rather than detention houses.
The Ministry last week announced plans to build new prisons to ensure there are enough places for serious offenders.
The old "gulag" style prison camps 's sometimes called criminal universities 's will be closed and replaced with modern cell-style jails.
Estonia's Parliament is also considering a proposal that would allow a proportion of the nation's 3,264 prisoners to serve out their time on parole.
"The new prison system would allow us to do better social rehabilitation work with prisoners to make sure they do not re-offend," a Justice Ministry spokeswoman said.