AUTHOR: NATHANIEL DOWNES
To many people, the goal of prison is to make prisoners’ lives a living hell. The idea being that if someone lands in jail, they deserve anything that happens to them, be it rape, assault, and even murder. We don’t care that they get sub-optimal health care or maggot infested food. And we imprison more people than any other nation on the planet to boot. Even North Korea has had its prison populations drop over the past several years, while the United States’ rate continues to climb. And the US prison system results in two-thirds of former prisoners returning to prison once released.
The American system is, in a word, broken.
By comparison, the prison system of Norway has less than 1/10th the per-capita prison population, and has a recidivism rate of only 20%. And, the Norweigans are proud of their system.
The Norwegian TV show, “The Norden” took a look at their prison system, and invited Attica Correctional Facilities’ now retired superintendent James Conway to take a look, and compare the prisons in the United States, Norway and Sweden. And what he found was night and day from how his prison in upstate New York, is run. He visited several facilities across Scandinavia and found all of them, even the maximum security facility, run far different from what he was used to.
At one point, as Mr. Conway explained how his prison would have handled one particular inmate, his guide compared it to “a very old way of child rearing,” which brought the issues of the US prison system in to a new light. When pressed on it, asking why the prisons in the United States were so strict, he replied simply “they [the prisoners] view kindness as weakness.” As Mr. Conway had never shown any kindness, as established in the video, it must puzzle one how he would have made that determination.
The clearest statement on how the US system feels about its prisoners comes from Mr. Conway himself, when describing how the United States treats its prisoners. Not only did he absolve any responsibility of the justice system for engineering a legal structure which all but guarantees prison for minorities in this nation, he blamed the prisoners for any mistreatment they may have at the hands of either fellow inmates or corrections officers. As he put it:
Who cares how they feel?
The biggest shock for him, however, was at the Halden maximum security prison in Norway. From the internet access to the musical instruments, Halden is on the cutting edge of rehabilitative corrections in Scandinavia. While skeptical, after meeting with former prisoners, and seeing the numbers, Halden showed less dismissal and more awe, feeling that the cost would be too high to validate the system rather than it not working.
But with a far lower criminal rate, the cost would be significantly lower, even if the per-prisoner cost were increased. Compare, the United States pays on average $25,838 per year to house a prisoner against Sweden’s ~$43,000 per year, while the United States has over 10 prisoners for every single Swede in jail.
By focusing on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, the prison rates in the Scandinavian nations continues to drop. As Bastøy Prison governor Arne Nilsen told the Guardian,
In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.
By giving access to modern amenities, access to work training, even musical education, prisoners leave corrections ready to enter society, not isolated from it. Much like military veterans unable to re-enter society after combat, we have turned prisons into a gigantic disorder factory. We take what were flawed human beings and turn them into criminals, unable to function in society.
The United States’ prison system is broken, perhaps beyond repair. Could a system such as Norway’s help? Perhaps. But it certainly could not hurt.