Norway’s Prison of Second Chances

That is how NPR aptly describes Halden Prison, nestled in the secluded forests of southeastern Norway. In a country that ranks near or at the very top of almost every ranking of social, economic, and civic progress, perhaps it is no surprise that the Scandinavian nation also excels in developing a rehabilitation system that is both humane and effective. 

“We have a lot of drug smugglers — it’s near the border [with Sweden]. We have murderers, rapists. … We have everything in this prison,” Hoidal says.

They have done bad things, Hoidal says, but they are not bad people.

“That’s a really important distinction,” he says. They are “human beings, we treat them with respect.”

And that’s the philosophy behind this prison, which opened in 2010. Norway, which is rich with North Sea oil, spends $90,000 a year to house each prisoner — three times what is spent on inmates in the United States.

Norwegians think it’s a good investment: The recidivism rate is less than 30 percent, half of what it is in the U.S. And there are more than 2.2 million Americans in prison; Norway’s prison population is one-tenth that, on a per capita basis.

The very idea of identifying murderers and rapists as “human beings” to be treated “with respect” would be unthinkable in the U.S., and indeed most parts of the world. But that is how Norway’s prison authorities — and by extension the society that largely supports this system — frame their approach to incarceration. And as the numbers clearly show, this humane attitude, however soft or inappropriate it seems to most societies, works.

Here is a look at how it manifests in practice:

Past a grove of birch trees, we approach a series of elegant wood-and-metal-clad buildings. These are the cell blocks.

The 250 inmates here are locked in their cells for 12 hours a day. But those cells are private rooms, with wood furniture, a shower, a fridge and a flat-screen TV.

It’s not just the architecture that makes Halden unique. You’ll find the staff playing badminton with inmates in the gym, eating with them in the dining areas.

Karin Dwyer-Loken is from Baltimore. She is married to a Norwegian and teaches history and English to inmates at Halden.

“It’s based on mutual respect between everybody,” she says. “It’s that anybody can learn anything. Anybody can change their lives with the right kind of help, guidance, giving them a chance.”

“They’re not supposed to be punished. They’re supposed to serve time,” she continues. “Their punishment is being locked up. Their punishment is not to be treated badly while they’re locked up.”

Everything from the aesthetics of the prison, to its holistic services, works to provide an accommodating and comfortable environment — one that, again, would widely been seen as unthinkably kind to hardened killers, thieves, and other social degenerates.

But it makes a certain amount of sense: setting aside the minority of individuals whose criminality can be attributed to psychopathy or some other severe mental pathology, the majority of criminals are products of their environment: they most often have backgrounds rife with abuse, neglect, poverty, etc.

Doubtless, this negative social conditioning leads many to perpetrate such behaviors in turn, breeding a cycle of violence that many prisons in the world actually continue to perpetuate: from practices like solitary confinement, to the cutting off of employment opportunities after a sentence is served, this retributive approach to incarceration is just another way to make criminals more hardened and anti-social.

“It’s too ingrown, the idea that a person who has done something bad is supposed to be punished for a very long time, and while he’s being punished, he’s supposed to be punished in as many ways as possible,” she says.

If inmates at Halden don’t follow the rules and attend class and counseling, they are shipped to more conventional prisons.

In the metal shop, Sebastian — an inmate serving time for murder — is learning how to weld. (The corrections service won’t allow the use of prisoners’ full names for privacy reasons.)

In the U.S., many prisoners serving time for a similar crime would be locked up for 23 hours a day.

But what’s the first thing they do when they get out? Sebastian asks.

“They’ll attack someone because they’re so angry. If they lock me up 23 hours a day, if an officer come open my door, I kick his [butt], because why should I not? I’m locked up 23 hours a day anyway,” he says. “But they treat me with respect, they give me opportunities and trust, and I want to show that I’m worthy.”

While such humane politics would certainly not work on everyone — even Norway has more traditional options to fall back upon — they would likely apply to a large percentage of convicts in most societies. Not everyone in prison is an irredeemably evil person for whom there is no hope; such an attitude, bolstered by both popular media and disproportionate attention towards those exceptional cases (serial killers, mass shooters, etc.) only perpetuate the sort of wanton and unforgiving approach to criminals that is ultimately unproductive. Treating people who are a product of bad environments even more badly will not fix them: as the anecdote quoted above observes, and high recidivism rates in the U.S. confirm, it just makes those people even nastier.

Whether or not one thinks prisoners deserve to be treated well, what should matter most is reducing the incidence of crime and ensuring that as many people as possible become productive and law-abiding members of society. To that end, Norway’s Halden Prison should be a model to consider. The specifics might vary from country to country or even prison to prison, but the overarching goal should be to give prisoners an opportunity to redeem themselves and return to their societies no longer a threat to themselves or otherwise (and to rigorously evaluate individual convicts’ progress and profile to separate out the truly lost causes).

If this means being “too soft” on criminals, then so be it. But decades of harsh treatment has done little to help the U.S., even as the rate of crime, including the violent kind, continues to decline (albeit due in no small part to the Drug War and prison privatization, these are topics for other days).

What are your thoughts?

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