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