Prison Life in Scandinavia

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“What is the Scandinavian prison system like?” wondered James Conway, a former correctional officer from the notorious US prison Attica. He was invited by Finnish Broadcasting, YLE, to comment on the Scandinavian prison system.

Conway could not believe what he experienced. The ultra liberal regime in Norway was nothing like what he was used to.

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In Norway, fewer than 4,000 of the country’s 5 million people were behind bars as of August 2014. That makes Norway’s incarceration rate just 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the US.

Both Denmark and Sweden have far lower incarceration and crime rates, prison is about rehabilitation, and it’s proved to work far more effectively.

Nils Oberg
Nils Oberg

“Why don´t you just give them the keys?” asked Conway as he inspects the top modern music studio complete with electric guitars, mixing console and, as icing on the cake, a Toto poster on the wall when he visited Halden prison in Norway.

James Conway
James Conway

But when criminals in Scandinavia leave prison, they stay out. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The US has one of the highest: 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: They have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us,” Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service, told the Guardian in 2014.

Where Conway comes from everything in sight might be turned into a lethal weapon, a coat hanger for example. But in Halden there are no plastic spoons. There are tools like hammers, chain saws and axes available for the inmates. Cutlery and sharp knives can be found in the kitchen.
Based on figures, it’s safe to assume Norway’s criminal justice system is doing something right. Few citizens there go to prison, and those who do usually go only once. So how does Scandinavia accomplish this feat? The countries rely on a concept called “restorative justice,” which aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than punish people.

From Bastoy prison, Norway
From Bastoy prison, Norway

Sweden’s prison system boasts impressive numbers. In the past decade, the number of Swedish prisoners has dropped from 5,722 to 4,500 out of a population of 9.5 million. The country has closed a number of prisons, and the recidivism rate is around 40%, which is far less than in the U.S. and most European countries.

From Halden prison, Norway
From Halden prison, Norway

The thing is, in the Scandinavian countries, the inmates will be treated as “normal” as possible in an attempt to make them suitable for life outside prison once they have served their sentence.

Conway’s view, however, is that it’s you who put yourself in prison. Not the staff, not the judge, not society. You’ve only got yourself to blame so you deserve to be treated like a prisoner. Not like a rock star.

From Bastoy prisin, Norway
From Bastoy prisin, Norway

But the 75-acre facility Halden prison in maintains as much “normalcy” as possible. That means no bars on the windows, kitchens fully equipped with sharp objects, and friendships between guards and inmates.

Officials in Scandinavia believe that the way they treat its prisoners is partly responsible for keeping incarceration and recidivism rates so low.

Norwegian prison library
Norwegian prison library

“If you come to prison your right to privacy is gone. The inmate has given up his right to be in society by violating the law. That person shouldn’t be given a situation where we’re concerned about how they would feel if somebody walks by their cell and sees them on the toilet. Who cares how they feel?” Conway says.

Silverware Halden prison
Silverware Halden prison

At Bastoy prison in Norway governor Arne Wilson, who is also a clinical psychologist, explained to the British paper The Guardian:

“In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. 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.”

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“It has to do with whether you decide to use prison as your first option or as a last resort, and what you want your probation system to achieve,” he told the Guardian. “Some people have to be incarcerated, but it has to be a goal to get them back out into society in better shape than they were when they came in.”

In an insightful article in the Atlantic, Doran Larson explains how his research on prisons revealed that Nordic countries’ rehabilitative ethos produces tangible results for those countries. Even in the high-security prisons he visited in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, he observed some remarkable things:

“Common areas included table tennis, pool tables, steel darts and aquariums. Prisoner art ornamented walls painted in mild greens and browns and blues. But the most profound difference is that correctional officers fill both rehabilitative and security roles. Each prisoner has a “contact officer” who monitors and helps advance progress toward return to the world outside — a practice introduced to help officers avoid the damage experienced by performing purely punitive functions.”

Feature image (on top): James Conway visits Halden prison

Prison Life in Scandinavia, written by Tor Kjolberg