Imagine a picturesque summer landscape in southern Norway with the scent of blueberry bushes, birch trees, and the North Sea wafting through the air. None of the 300 inmates at the Halden maximum-security prison have to imagine anything—that seaside breeze is part of their daily routines. Unlike the majority of prisons on Earth, Halden allows its inmates to freely roam the facility for 12 hours per day. Now, visualize electric fences with razor wire, guard towers with snipers, and 400 other inmates crammed in all around you. That’s what the 1-2 hour yard time at ADX Florence Supermax feels like. Based on these accounts, It’s easy to see that Scandinavian jails and prisons are very different from their American counterparts. But why are the recidivism rates of Norway and Denmark so much lower than America’s?
Well for one thing, American correctional institutions are some of the most heavily populated institutions in the world. While American sheriffs and jail administrators can’t make immediate changes to federal law enforcement policy, they can mine the Scandinavian incarceration model for strategic wisdom. To that end, here are some of the key differences between Scandinavian and American facilities:
Scandinavian Jails Offer More Freedoms and Amenities
Scandinavian jails, including Halden, get a bad rap from American media. They’re portrayed as cushy, naive, and soft on crime. Halden is one of Norway’s newest maximum-security prisons near the border between Norway and Sweden. According to an NPR article by Jeffrey Kofman, each inmate’s cell is a private room equipped with a fridge, a television, and a desk. Inmates also have access to a fully-equipped kitchen, and a metal and woodworking shop. In short, while it’s true that Halden was not designed like an American maximum-security facility, it’s hardly a caviar and bonbons experience.
According to an article in the New York Times written by Jessica Benko, Halden had no security fence or warnings about picking up hitchhikers because no inmate had ever tried to escape the facility. “There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers—nothing violent, threatening or dangerous,” Benko wrote.
At ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, it is a completely different world. Each cell gets a four-inch window; a concrete bed, a stool and a desk. Showers at ADX are set on timers, and the toilets and sinks are combined units. It also houses nearly twice the number of inmates as Halden normally does.
Norway Focuses on Life After Incarceration
There are significant differences between US and Scandinavian punitive systems. Norway’s incarceration rate is 72 per every 100,000 people compared to America’s 693 per 100,000 people. Norway also has the world’s lowest recidivism rate at 20 percent, while America sees 75 percent of its prisoners re-offend within five years of release.
According to Benko’s article, Halden takes a different approach to rehabilitating its prisoners. In this Scandinavian prison, the facility staff focus on preparing inmates for life after incarceration. Amazingly, guards are also encouraged to cultivate friendships with the inmates. In Norway, there is no death penalty, nor is there a life sentence. The maximum sentence is 21 years, however, five-year increments can be added onto a sentence if the Norwegian justice system finds that a prisoner hasn’t been rehabilitated.
In Colorado, where ADX Florence is located, capital punishment is legal and each criminal sentence depends upon the severity of the crime. While America has its own process for rehabilitating inmates, the Scandinavian model is extremely successful at keeping its citizens out of prison. Since there is a staggering difference between the recidivism rates of each country, American jail administrators should take notice. By creating facility policy that focuses on life after incarceration, jail administrators could reduce American recidivism on their own.
North Dakota Prisons Test the Norwegian Philosophy
Don Specter of the Prison Law Office funded the US-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program in partnership with Dr. Brie Williams and Cyrus Ahalt of the UC Criminal Justice and Health Consortium at UC San Francisco. This program allows criminal justice professionals of all levels to tour Norway’s correctional system and learn from European reform leaders.
In 2015, North Dakota prisons chief Leann Bertsch and her deputy Karianne Jackson enrolled in the program. They toured Halden and came away with the knowledge to enact a similar system in North Dakota. According to Dashka Slater’s article in Mother Jones, Bertsch found some modular units to house inmates at the Missouri River Correctional Center (a minimum-security facility) and urged the staff to adopt the Norwegian philosophy. Inmates had the opportunity to snag one of 36 private rooms in exchange for good behavior. Some of these rooms even included showers and toilets. Bertsch and her deputies also reevaluated the list of minor infractions and searched for candidates in solitary confinement that could be transitioned into general population.
Since the new system was established, North Dakota prison officials have noticed large declines in violence, threats against the staff, and the use of force by staff. It should be noted that North Dakota already had a lower-than-average incarceration rate compared to other states, and that not every prison can move inmates around on a whim. Larger facilities in many states may have different problems and needs.
Slater went on to say that some states with larger prison populations have enacted rules encouraging staff to interact with inmates without relying on command terminology. Maybe that’s a step in the right direction. It’s a relatively small change to make compared to building 36 special housing units. Instead of showing force in a tense situation, staff could employ empathy to resolve an issue without burying resentments within inmates. The best incarceration facilities have staff that can treat their charges like human beings, while maintaining an air of impartiality. However, only jail administrators can craft facility policies that encourage this type of conflict resolution.
For more information about Norway’s prison system from the inmate’s perspective, check out this translated video.