Escapism II: more prisoners on the run

Sweden awoke on Thursday morning with a strong sense of déjà vu. With the prison doors scarcely locked once more behind Tony Olsson and his cronies from Hall, it happened again. This time, on Wednesday afternoon, three convicts at Norrtälje Prison were tasting freedom following a dramatic raid.

News agency TT reported that shortly after 5 o’clock, a beige Nissan reversed at high speed up to the iron gates of the prison, located 70 kilometres north of Stockholm. Three masked men, armed with sub-machine guns and cutting equipment, forced open the gates and loaded the three prisoners into the car. They transferred to a second car before heading northwards.

The three escapees, Basim Bottany (35 years old), Mårten Tammiharju (27) and Tony Palmroth (21) were described as hardened criminals. Bottany was serving a 12 year sentence for conspiracy to murder and drugs and weapons offences. Tammiharju was convicted of attempted murder.

The police sent out a nationwide alert and set up road blocks in the area. The Stockholm police spokesman, Björn Philblad, said that the investigation had started by checking tips that they had already received and going through their own intelligence on the three escapees.

Nobody was injured during the raid. Assistant Governor of the prison, Anders Ekström, told TT: “When we saw the automatic weapons we backed off. There’s no point trying to be a hero.”

This was the third attempted jail break from Norrtälje this year. Two men were caught attempting to free inmates in March and last month a prisoner escaped whilst on a hospital visit. Head of security for the prison service, Christer Isaksson, claimed that a number of planned escapes have been thwarted, but would not give details. But he added: “There’s no doubt there’s a copy-cat effect. Other inmates are encouraged to have a go.”

One reason for the high number of escape attempts at Norrtälje is thought to be the roaring trade in mobile phones. No fewer than 34 have been found within the prison during recent months. The model of choice is half the size of standard phones and is specially imported from Thailand for 1000 crowns apiece. Within prison walls, the price quadruples. “We’re talking big business,” said Christer Hofström of Norrtälje Prison’s security committee, “There’s a lot of money in it – more than in selling drugs.”

Intriguingly, on 30th July, after the Hall escapes, Basim Bottany had an article published in DN complaining about recent toughening of sentences and prison regimes. He criticised the use of solitary confinement, such as in the case of the Hall escapes, and the stricter measures imposed after such high-profile incidents.

“Isolation creates desperate people who don’t see any other way out….The prison services’ policies and the reaction of inmates has set in motion a vicious circle which ultimately means that inmates become mentally unstable and the staff’s job becomes intolerable.”

In another article in Wednesday’s SvD, Nina Lindblad, a prison warder at Svartsjö, said she was happy that Tony Olsson had escaped last week:

“Finally, maybe the public and the powers that be can make the prison service realise that something needs to be done.”

She pointed out that it was a scandal that two female summer temps, with minimal training, were alone on duty guarding one of the country’s most notorious criminals.

“The staff are victims of a service which doesn’t care for them or the rehabilitation of inmates,” she said.

In developments from the Hall case, Thursday’s GP reported the arrest in the Stockholm area of a man suspected of aiding and abetting the escape. He is thought to be one of the two men in the getaway car. Chief Prosecutor, Stefan Bergman, has firmly denied speculation that any formal proceedings have been instigated against staff at Hall in connection with the escape.

“No Hall employee is suspected of any crime,” he said. “And I don’t intend to comment on the investigation as a whole regarding possible suspicions against the staff there.”

Following yesterday’s dramatic events, leader of the Moderates, Fredrik Reinfeldt, has repeated last week’s criticism of Justice Minister, Thomas Bodström, and demanded his resignation. But Bodström reacted by announcing a plan to build a new high security prison for Sweden’s most dangerous prisoners as well as improved security measures elsewhere.