New prison causes conflict between city, ministry

  • 2002-11-21
  • Aleksei Gunter

Tartu city authorities intend to cancel the certificate of occupancy of the newly built Tartu prison due to an alleged breach in an initial agreement with the country's Justice Ministry.

Excessive occupancy levels in the Tartu prison have increased concerns of safety among city officials. The number of inmates reportedly held in the new facilities reached 539, 7 percent over the maximim number of 500 allowable pursuant to the prison project.

Andrus Ansip, mayor of Tartu, said the city government sent a query to the Justice Minister on Nov. 19 regarding the exact number of inmates in the prison.

If the ministry confirms the number exceeds 500, the Tartu City Council will cancel the certificate of occupancy of the prison building, said Ansip.

In addition, if a compromise is not reached the council will initiate a lawsuit.

Ansip said that the problem was not just about the prison. "In the very beginning Tartu authorities issued a permit to build a regional prison for 500 inmates, which corresponded with the city development and safety program," he said.

However, in 1999 the city lost 70 police officers in a nation-wide police lay-off campaign.

"To work under normal circumstances Tartu needs about 30 police officers than (we have) now," said Ansip.

"Even without any prison the police in the city has too much work to do," he said. "I think the state does not consider local governments as independent and competent partners."

The Justice Ministry has five days to respond. By next week the situation will become more clear, said Ansip.

Peeter Naks, prison chancellor of the Justice Ministry, said the number of prisoners in the Tartu prison depends upon the overall number of inmates from the south and southeastern part of the country. As of Nov. 8, there were 900 persons imprisoned in the area.

As prisons in the given region are currently overloaded, Tartu will inevitably receive more prisoners in the near future, said Naks.

"In the beginning there will be more than 500 but less than 1,000 inmates in the (Tartu) prison," he said.

Naks said that as crime rates fall in the future, Tartu prison will have up to 500 prisoners.

"The prison administration and the Justice Ministry consider the prison can take more than 500 inmates. Its security, ventilation and catering systems allow that," said Naks.

Some politicians on Tartu City Council think the prison conflict does not fit Tartu's motto: "The City of Good Thoughts."

"The current opposition between the mayor and the Justice Minister is harmful to the city and the state because both sides are looking for excuses, not solutions," Urmo Koobi, chairman of the Res Publica party faction, said.

Koobi said the Tartu inmates' criminal connections, should they filter through the city, would pose the greatest threat to local residents.

The 423 million kroon (23 million euro) prison, built between May 2001 and October 2002, has 479 cells. It uses the individual-cell principle that supposedly reduces communication between inmates to a minimum.