We Need a Prison System More Like Norway’s

There are vast differences between the United States and Scandinavian prison systems. Take Norway for example. Norway’s incarceration rate is 75 people per 100,000; approximately 3,842 prisoners in the entire country.

That’s mighty low compared to the United States, whose rate is 707 people per 100,000, or 2,228,424 people behind bars.

Norway has no death penalty, no life sentences. Even their worst offender, Anders Behring Breivik, the man responsible for perhaps the largest mass shooting in the world (he killed 77 people and injured hundreds more), might only serve a maximum sentence of 21 years.

Core philosophies about the purpose of prison are vastly different. In America, prison is about retribution. In Scandinavian countries, the focus is on normalization.

In Norway, yearly meetings about prison policy are held in the mountains and prisoners are regularly invited. Prisons in America are inhumane, violent and degrading. Prisoners don’t have a say in prison policy.

In Norway, health care is provided through community facilities rather than prison services. They don’t privatize their prison services, unlike in the United States, where private companies are greatly expanding their reach.

Norwegian prison officials receive two years of training with an emphasis on the value of treating inmates humanely. In the United States, prison officials receive minimal training and humane treatment is not the norm. They tend to be harsh, unforgiving and militaristic.

Prison conditions in Norway are relaxed. That is certainly not true in US prisons where violence is common. Being a prison official is anything but relaxed. It is a dangerous job.

Batroy prison in Norway has an open prison system. It’s built on an island in the mountains. 100 inmates live in the prison with no walls or fences anywhere. Their goal is to provide prisoners with the cognitive and social skills in order to develop a sense of responsibility for their actions. Inmates work with knives, saws and axes, anything they need to do their work. They are trusted by the prison officials. There is even a guesthouse where prisoners can stay with their families for a weekend.

See the stark differences between the two countries in this video in which Retired superintendent James Conway, a 38-year veteran of the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, tours Halden Prison. He is in for quite a shock.

You can read more about Halden Prison in the New York Times. The article features a great Dostoyevsky quote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

They must be doing something right: Norway’s recidivism rate is about 20%; The United States: about 68%.

Obviously there are dangerous prisoners who should never be granted certain freedoms; especially those who have no chance of ever leaving prison (I am referring to the Tommy Lynn Sells and Jodi Arias’s of the world) but 97% of prisoners will eventually be released. Shouldn’t we want them more “normalized” and thus able to function and reintegrate back into society? Could it be as simple as helping them, giving them education and access to services and skills to find work?

It could be. It was that kind of simple idea from Sam Tsemberis that has “all but solved” chronic homelessness.

We have a lot to learn from Norway.

Scholarly Reference: Pratt, J. (2008). Scandinavian exceptionalism and an era of penal access. British Journal of Criminology, 48, 119-137. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azm072

The Case of Darlie Routier

There have been over 290 people who have been exonerated in the United States (i.e. their innocence has been proven). We usually hear about these cases after they have been released from prison but what about the people who are currently in prison and claiming to be innocent. Darlie Routier is one such case.

Darlie is currently on death row in Texas for the murder of her two young sons. She has always proclaimed her innocence. She has many supporters who also believe in her innocence. One of those supporters created a video about the case.

Here is an update on her case. She might have a strong case.

Documentaries About Suicide

A reader asked if I knew of any documentaries about suicide. I knew of several but I wanted to research what else was available. The result: relative to other subjects, there are hardly any documentaries about suicide. It may be because it is a controversial topic. Some people believe that focusing on suicide might increase its likelihood.

Probably the most famous documentary about suicide is The Bridge which caused a great deal of controversy during production. Watch the video of The Bridge‘s filmmaker Eric Steel being interviewed by Charlie Rose.

Below is a list of documentaries about suicide. If I missed any, please let me know in the comments section.

1. The Bridge: A documentary about individuals who committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. It features friends and family members of individuals who jumped from the bridge and also at least one person who jumped and survived.

2. How To Die In Oregon: (HBO Documentaries): Oregon was the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. This film discusses Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act and features several terminally-ill patients who chose to end their life with medication prescribed by their physician.

3. Boy Interrupted: (HBO Documentaries): This film tells the story of a 15-year-old with bipolar disorder who committed suicide. The film also examines what it was like for his family to deal with his mental illness and his loss.

4. Jonestown: (PBS FRONTLINE) This documentary is about Rev. Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Jonestown in 1978. The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” is thought to have derived from the Jonestown tragedy. Over 900 men, women and children drank soft drinks laced with cyanide for the purpose of ending their lives. There are several documentaries about Jonestown but this one particular is told from the perspective of cult defectors, relatives and journalists.

5. *Heaven’s Gate: This documentary is about a San Diego-based cult that was formed by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in which 39 members committed mass suicide. The purpose of ending their lives was to reach an alien spacecraft which they thought was following Comet Hale-Bopp. If you’re interested in cults you’ll like this documentary.

6. Cry For Help: (PBS FRONTLINE): This documentary follows the efforts of two high schools attempting to address adolescent teen suicide and mental illness. Many people who have seen this documentary find it to be very compelling.

7. The Self-Made Man: This is a documentary made by Susan Stern whose father committed suicide at the age of 77. You can read more about the film here.

8. Kevorkian: (HBO Documentaries): This is less of a documentary in the traditional sense but a film about the life of Jack Kevorkian starring Al Pacino. Jack Kevorkian has performed over 130 physician-assisted suicide and has earned the name “Dr. Death.” His work is very controversial. It is an interesting documentary and worth watching.

PBS FRONTLINE also has a documentary about Dr. Kevorkian.

9. Daughter of Suicide: This is a documentary by Dempsey Rice, whose mother was a psychotherapist and an amateur photographer. It is the story of her mother’s death by suicide as well as an in-depth look at the healing process of the family. Daughter of Suicide is the recipient of many awards.

10. Aftermath: The Legacy of Suicide: This documentary deals with how children cope after the death of a parent by suicide. It features three people who lost their fathers to suicide at an early age.

Crime Documentaries Worth Watching

I made a list of my favorite documentaries focused on mental health and now I have a new list of favorite documentaries related to criminal justice. Many of these films can be viewed online for free. The links are provided below. Did I miss one? If so, let me know.

1. *The Real CSI: (PBS FRONTLINE): Investigates the reliability, or lack thereof, of the best-known forensic science tools.

2. *Top Secret America: (PBS FRONTLINE): Examines the top-secret world of government that has developed since 9/11. The documentary features Dana Priest of the Washington Post.

3. *The Interrupters: (PBS FRONTLINE): This documentary demonstrates a new approach to solving gang violence. The film offers a different way of understanding violence and poverty.

4. *Death By Fire: (PBS FRONTLINE): It is believed that the state of Texas executed an innocent person named Cameron Todd Willingham. This documentary investigates that case in great detail.

5. *Solitary Confinement: (National Geographic): This documentary explores the psychological effects of solitary confinement. You can view this on Netflix or by clicking on the link.

6. *The World’s Most Dangerous Drug: Meth: (National Geographic): This documentary explores the tragedy of methamphetamine and how it destroy lives. It is probably the best methamphetamine documentary I’ve seen.You can view this on Netflix or by clicking on the link.

7. [amazon_link id=”B001CDEGWM” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Paradise Lost[/amazon_link]: (HBO Documentaries): This is the in-depth story of the West Memphis three, Damion Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. & Jason Baldwin who were convicted of murdering three boys in West Memphis Arkansas but who were later found to be innocent. There are a number of subsequent documentaries that update the details of the story.

8. *The Released: (PBS FRONTLINE): This documentary provides an inside look at mentally ill offenders and their struggle for stability.

9. *Cocaine Cowboys: The very interesting story of the history of drug trafficking in Miami.

10. Most Evil: (Investigation Discovery Channel). This is a long-running series of one hour individual television shows on the Investigation Discovery channel. I would consider these “mini” documentaries about the science of evil. The show features Dr. Stone and his scale of evil.

12. *Post Mortem: Death Investigation In America: (PBS FRONTLINE): This documentary examines the status of autopsies and the doctors who provide them. The overarching conclusion is that it is a dysfunctional system with few standards and little oversight.

13. *The Iceman: (HBO Documentaries): This is a chilling look at Richard Kuklinski who is known to have killed many people as part of his “job.” Many consider Richard Kuklinski to be a “textbook case” of antisocial personality disorder.

*Indicates that it can be viewed online for FREE.