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The following is a sneak peek at an article I’m writing for the May edition of the RazorWire, our prison newspaper. This is still a very rough draft, so it won’t be the version that gets published, but I thought some of you might find the content interesting or informative.
Tours Of Norwegian Prisons Make U.S. Prison Officials Think Twice
Attorneys often get a bad rap. But one California lawyer by the name of Donald Specter is hoping to beat the negative stereotypes. For years, his mission has been to help improve America’s prisons by making incarceration more humane and effective. He believes U.S. prison officials can learn a lot from Norway’s correctional system.
In 2013, Specter founded the US-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program, a group that sponsors and pays for tours of European prisons for U.S. prison officials, judges, and legislators. Participants from Idaho, and six other states, have toured prisons in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway. Many come away from the tours with a changed ideology and a committment to implementing change in their own correctional system.
Norway’s Halden Prison was coined “The World’s Most Humane Prison” by Time Magazine. After touring there in 2014, James Conway, retired superintendant of New York’s Attica State Prison, said, “I’ve never seen aything like this.” And John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections, admitted, “It really screws you up, because it changes you.”
American prison staff members are initially shocked when they see the apartment-like setting of Norwegian prisons: a full kitchen with glass and metal flatware, and a living room ripped straight out of an IKEA catalog.
Leann Bertsch, head of North Dakota’s Department of Correction, and President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, has always had a “tough on crime” reputation. The tour of Halden changed her so much that when she returned to North Dakota, she asked herself, “How did we think it was okay to put human beings in cage-like settings?” Now she aims for what many consider a radical new approach: “To implement our humanity” in North Dakota prisons.
Norwegians have a different philosophy when it coes to punishment. According to Specter, they don’t support punitive or harsh conditions, because to them, “the loss of freedom IS the punishment.” Norwegian prison guards engage with inmates on a humane level. Each officer oversees just four inmates. and is trained to de-escalate conflicts.
Karianne Jackson, director of Correctional Practices in North Dakota, told the Bismark Tribune that what she saw in Norway was “too hard to ignore.” To Jackson, it wasn’t about the comfortable and stylish bedrooms — what impressed her was that their system actually works. (Norwegian prisons are much less-violent, with a recidivism rate of just 25 percent, compared to roughly 60 percent in the US.)
Jackson credits the success to better relationships between staff and inmates. But, she laments, “How do you get somebody who thinks they’re in law enforcement to be more of a social worker, a friend, a mentor?”
It’s an uphill battle, but Specter’s tours seem to be making a difference, as prison employees begin to realize that how someone is treated while incarcerated affects how they behave once released.
ICIO inmates doubt they’ll see A-Block transformed into a posh apartment-like setting any time soon. But, already some Norwegian philosophies are trickling into Idaho’s system — things like reduced time in the hole, better food, and fundraisers (allowing the purchase of donuts and chocolate milk, for example) to help inmates feel a bit more human.
Perhaps the Culture of Honor, promoted heavily within the ICIO school, will one day become a reality in all Idaho prisons and throughout the United States. In the words of The Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t it be nice?”
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Categories: Stephen Newman