Norwegian Prison

ACN had a visitor today: Jan Strømnes, deputy head of Halden Prison in Norway. He gave a talk over our lunch about prison philosophy and the differences he’s observed between his prison, and three prisons he visited in the U.S., including Atticus Maximum Security in New York, and North Dakota’s State Penitentiary. Halden is a maximum security prison, but parts of it look more like a dormitory commons room, replete with folks relaxing and cooking meals together.

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I swiped this picture from the Google. Strømnes is in blue. 

Guards in Halden don’t typically walk around with guns as that can be triggering for inmates. These kinds of “static security” measures create physical and emotional barriers that increase fear and suspicion. And as Strømnes said today, “when you fear someone, you probably won’t interact with them in a positive way.” So the guards at Halden have a different approach. Strømnes described a system of “dynamic security” where communication and relationship building between inmates and guards fosters an atmosphere of respect and safety. Guards and inmates speak with one another, share meals, and play sports together. And while many would assume that the role of maximum security guard would be best suited for a man, Strømnes asserts that his prison hires many women because “women are good at communication and that is good for security.”

Sounds like Socialist Bullshit, right? Except that it works. While stuff like this is going on in American prisons, Halden maintains this environment, and has a much higher success rate in terms of rehabilitation and inmate and guard safety. In four years, there has been one incident of inmate violence. ONE. And Halden’s reincarceration rate after two years is about 20%. Compare that to U.K. and U.S. rates which are between 40 – 60%.

American prisons strip prisoners of their basic human rights. No privacy on the toilet, little sense of personal safety, constant fear and suspicion, grumbling stomaches. As Strømnes discussed today, this kind of environment is not just bad for inmates, but bad for guards as well. Working in a volatile atmosphere day in and day out leads a large number of U.S. prison guards to develop PTSD symptoms. And spousal abuse rates for U.S. prison guards far exceeds average rates. Suspicion. Fear. Distance. In this model, everybody, inmate or guard, feels as though they are in constant danger.

On one of his U.S. prison visits, Strømnes gave a group of inmates an hour to design a dream prison. Without prompting, the inmates designed Halden. None of them asked for shorter sentences, but they all asked for respectful treatment and more programs focusing on rehabilitation. They wanted access to education, parenting classes, and anger management therapy. They wanted skills that would help them reenter society. American prisons don’t rehabilitate–they punish. But 80% of incarcerated persons reenter society and become our neighbors and our coworkers. Who would you rather have living next door: an inmate from Atticus or an inmate from Halden?

You might be thinking that Norwegians must be special and so they can have a nice prison and be nice people and whatever whatever. BUT, Strømnes addressed this too. He noted that his prison population is comprised of many nationalities, and yet he sees none of the behavior problems plaguing U.S. prisons. Humane treatment is perceived as human treatment, regardless of nationality.

You might also be wondering about victim’s families and how they might feel seeing perpetrators of heinous crimes living in relative luxury. Most people would feel pretty angry, and I think that’s part of the reason why our prisons are so harsh: they are a punishment. If inmates suffer, it’s because they have it coming. It’s vengeance based on an emotional response, not rehabilitation.

The documentary of Strømnes’ prison visits features an employee of the North Dakota State Penitentiary, and she addresses this issue. She reasons that, though she understands the anger that victims’ families feel, ultimately, “we’re not the department of emotional responses. We’re the department of corrections and rehabilitation.” And she furthers reasons that the prisons with the harshest conditions have the highest inmate return rate, not the other way around.

The documentary is called Breaking the Cycle, and you can watch a trailer here. It aired here tonight on a local channel, but I’ll check to see if its available to U.S. viewers. Some of the interviews are in Norwegian, but most of it is in English. It’s very powerful. The state of our prisons isn’t something I’ve ever given much thought, because criminals deserve to be punished, right? But I don’t think that’s right. I do think that Americans–even if we magically had the money for prison reform–would have a difficult time accepting prison conditions like those at Halden. Norwegians are fairly well taken care of, so having well-cared for prisoners isn’t likely to cause resentment. Can’t say the same for Americans.

But most importantly, as Strømnes pointed out, the best measures are prevention measures–keeping people out of prison in the first place. That means putting money into education, social services, and welfare programs. Most people who end up in prison have mental health issues stemming from traumatic childhoods. An alarming number of inmates have at least one social services call on record from when they were a minor. That’s not an excuse, but it’s an important consideration. Why continue to victimize people who have been victimized their whole lives?

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