Yves here. While it makes sense on many levels to implement less brutal prisons, it is unlikely to be anything more than isolated experiences in the United States. The whole point of having a prison system is profit, so the more recidivism the better.
By Jordan Hyatt, Associate Professor of Criminology and Forensic Studies, Drexel University and Synøve Nygaard Andersen, Postdoctoral Fellow in Sociology, University of Oslo. Originally posted on The conversation
The United States has the the largest number of incarcerated people in the world – approximately 25% of all people imprisoned in the world are in American jails and prisons.
Overcrowding, violence and long sentences are common in American prisons, often creating a climate of despair for prisoners, as well as for the people who work there.
In addition, correctional officers, often faced with long shifts, worry about their own safety and stressful working conditions, have a an average life expectancy of about ten yearsthan the general population.
Some defenders have claimed turn people away from prisons, especially those at low risk. Others encourage shorter sentences and earlier versions.
But reform efforts could also extend to changing the prison environment itself.
We are American and Norwegian criminologists. While trying to better understand the legal systems of our countries, we spent a lot of time in penal institutions across Scandinavia and the United States. Here we often try to identify overlooked similaritieswithin these very different places – and how they could learn from each other.
A recent collaboration between correctional services in Pennsylvania and several Scandinavian countries offers an opportunity to test these ideas. A Pennsylvania prison unit we study adapts elements from Scandinavian prisons and offers a window into what the design of other prison systems in the United States might look like.
Prisons in Scandinavia
Correctional systems in much of Scandinavia are guided by a general set of philosophical principles. In Sweden, these standards emphasize rehabilitation and encourage meaningful change, so that prisoners can lead better lives.
In Norway, the core values of security, transparency and innovationare seen as fundamental to the idea of creating normality in prison, the feeling that life as a member of a community continues, even behind walls and bars.
Adhering to these principles means that, in some cases, incarcerated people can wear their own clothes, take jobs that prepare them for employment, and cook their own meals.
Prisons in Scandinavia are also small, with some housing around a dozen people – which is possible, given the relatively low incarceration rates in the region.
In most cases, people incarcerated in Norway have access to many of the same social and educational services and programs as non-incarcerated persons.
Many prisons, especially in Norway, are designed in a fundamentally different way than in the United States Closeness to natureis often considered, for example. Cells in Norway are also for one person – not multi-person, as in most cases in the US Norway, perhaps unsurprisingly, has attracted manyinternational visitors who come to observe their penitentiary system.
Importantly, correctional officers have at least two years of university training and are directly involved in the rehabilitation and planning of the incarcerated person’s reintegration into the world outside the prison. In the United States, most officers only receive a few weeks of training, and their work focuses primarily on maintaining safety and security.
It should also be noted that recidivism rate in Scandinavia are low. In Norway, it has been reported that less than half of those released from prison are rearrested after three years. In Pennsylvania, this figure is closer to 70%. The implications for correctional systems are profound.
Norway and the United States
There are, of course, other fundamental differences between the Scandinavian countries and the United States.
Norway, like other countries in the region, is much smallerthan the United States, both in terms of population and geography. Crime rates are lower there than in the United States, and social support systems are more robust. Gun violence is also almost unknown.
In Norway, the longest prison sentence in most cases is 21 years – with most people serving less than a year. In Pennsylvania, life sentences are not uncommon and many crimes, including non-violent crimes, can result in decades of imprisonment.
Despite this, the two systems may not be totally incompatible, at least not when it comes to prison reform.
The Scandinavian Prison Project
At Chester State Correctional Institution, known as SCI Chester, a medium-security prison just outside of Philadelphia, a team led by a corrections officer worked since 2018 integrate the Scandinavian penal system principles in its own establishment. Based on their direct experiences, corrections officers and facility managers have sought to reconsider what incarceration at SCI Chester might look like. This initiative focused solely on the development of a single housing unit within the prison.
In 2019the group, which also included outside researchers and corrections officials, spent weeks visiting a range of institutions across Scandinavia, and officers worked in Norwegian prisons alongside peer mentors.
In March 2020, six men from SCI Chester – each sentenced to life in prison – were selected to take part in the project as mentors. They then moved to the new housing unit, known as “Little Scandinavia.”
In early 2022, researchers and correctional officials returned for a follow-up visit to several prisons in Sweden. Although delayed by the pandemic, a further 29 residents of SCI Chester were selected from the general prison population to join the Scandinavian-inspired housing unit in May.
With individual cells, a communal kitchen, Nordic-style furnishings and landscaped outdoor green space, Little Scandinavia is like no other American prison. Plants grow in the common areas. A large aquarium, maintained by staff and residents, is the centerpiece of a space designed to encourage people to gather.
A grocery program allows all residents to buy fresh food – a rarity in prison – and work directly with staff to send orders to a local store.
Every day, residents have to go to work, treatment or school, all in the prison.
Importantly, correctional officers overseeing Little Scandinavia have received a range of training to facilitate communication with the residents assigned to them.
Pull out The Norwegian modelthere is also an exceptionally low ratio of trained staff to incarcerated men – one officer for every eight residents, compared to the typical average of one staff member for every 128 residents.
Although the community is still evolving, there have been no acts of violence, as some have speculated, even with access to kitchen equipment.
Learning from Little Scandinavia
As part of our research, we examine the direct experiences of correctional staff with this international project.
Some analyzes have shown that a Scandinavian approach, centered on normality and reintegration, can be potentially good for correctional officersboosting their morale, independence and well-being.
Prisoners also reported feeling safer and having more positive relationships with staff and other people living in prisons. They also reported greater satisfaction with their access to food and the reintegration assistance offered to them.
SCI Chester shows that it is in fact possible to adapt penal philosophies to the Scandinavian and incorporate them into a Pennsylvania prison. This effort is a pilot project, however, with significant costs, fundamental support from committed leadersand in partnership with many outside specialists.
It remains to be seen how these efforts will materialize in the long term. Data from this project and rigorous research on other effortscan inform conversations about what the future of prison reform in the United States might look like.
After all, as they say in Norway, a prison is responsible for enabling incarcerated people to reintegrate into society. good neighbors – a fact that, in most cases, is as true in Philadelphia as it is in Stockholm or Oslo.