By Jasmine Moheb
Overcrowding, inhumane practices, a lack of basic health necessities, and a vicious cycle of poverty and discrimination depict the incarceration standards of the United States–the supposed global leader in human rights development. While one in four prisoners in the world today is behind bars in the “land of the free,” incarceration practices in the rest of the world prove that alternatives not only exist but also that some are better at attaining the ultimate goal of a just society.
Although Norway’s prison system is championed as an unprecedented success in incarceration practices today with outstandingly low recidivism rates, it largely resembled the current American system until 1998. A drastic change occurred in two waves of reform. The first was seen in 1998 when Norway’s Ministry of Justice explicitly prioritized and acted upon rehabilitating prisoners through activities that would allow for an easier transition to re-integration within society. The second wave occurred in 2007 when they implemented practices that would help inmates find housing and secure a steady job income before being released.
The re-prioritization of goals and heightened concern for prisoners’ well-being post-incarceration led the country to embrace the concept of “restorative justice.” This is an attempt to rehabilitate prisoners and address the root of the crime committed by reconciling relationships between inmates and society as a whole. Restorative justice begins with a mindset towards incarceration that is based on humanity, law, and equality with the belief that imprisonment should be the limitation to freedom rather than the abandonment of basic human rights, as is seen all too often in prisons around the world. These views are promoted with the intention of shaping current prisoners into “better neighbors” when released. This is vastly different from the American system of “retributive justice,” which encourages a proportional punishment appropriate to the crime based on the principle that justice is attained by enforcing the law.
Norway also takes a unique approach to sentencing within the criminal justice system. Community punishment is often used as an alternative to imprisonment, which entails 30 to 420 hours of community service for one year, as assigned by a judge. Community punishment is typically served through socially-beneficial work, including volunteering with Non-Governmental Organizations, schools, and churches. This allows those who have committed a crime to give back to the community in a positive way.
On the other hand, punishment is also carried out through prison sentencing, though the maximum life sentence in Norway is typically 21 years with additional five-year increments added to the sentence if rehabilitation has not been fully attained, and the death penalty is not an option. When sentenced to prison, inmates are supported by Norway’s “import model.” This connects them to community welfare services such as health, education, and library programs that form the basis of a set of relationships that continues after sentencing is concluded, enhancing the reintegration process upon the prisoner’s release.
A prison at the forefront of Norway’s reforms is the Halden Prison. A comfortable living arrangement includes bar-less windows, a refrigerator, a television, and a kitchen where inmates can cook meals. Cooking classes are provided as one of the many educational programs offered. True to the reintegration focus of Norway, Halden provides a variety of vocational programs including woodworking and a sound studio for aspiring artists. Even the architectural design while constructing the prison was guided by a theme of rehabilitation and growth, exhibiting soft gray colors and brick buildings that promote a connection to the surrounding woodlands.
The prison guards at Halden also operate under a concept called “dynamic security” where they are encouraged to have interpersonal relationships with inmates. While America encourages “static security,” which is an approach with the primary focus of preventing conflict through authoritative-like demeanors by prison guards, Halden’s guards are typically unarmed and architects intentionally made guard stations uncomfortably small to encourage guards to socialize with inmates in common rooms as friends. Although surveillance cameras are not utilized and prisoners are given significant freedom compared to prisons in other countries, inmates choose not to act out.
Although this system seems like a utopian fantasy to prison systems around the world, the results from Norway’s practices have shown monumental success, including lowering crime in the society as a whole and attaining a 20% recidivism rate. This is the lowest rate in Scandinavia and one of the lowest rates in the world — especially when compared to America’s 76.6% recidivism rate. However, it is important to acknowledge differences among the two nations that may present challenges for America when considering a similar transition, such as the significant difference in financial burden. The cost of incarceration per inmate in the Halden Prison is triple the cost for inmates in the United States. Other societal institutional differences among the two countries include education systems, welfare programs, and policing methods — all of which shape an inmate’s experience and transformation within the justice system. Attaining Norway’s recidivism rate may not be immediately feasible, as many other reforms must occur before achieving a similar rate of success.
Slowly encouraging reforms that promote rehabilitation and reintegration into society is a great first step in stripping the unnecessarily-tight shackles from so many American citizens and allowing them to return to the “land of the free,” but this will require lawmakers to truly embody the “home of the brave” by realizing that current policies–while comfortable–are simply not effective in attaining a just or free society.