Lessons From Norway’s Prison System

imageToday we feature a story from Huffington Post on Norway’s prison system, where incarcerated people are treated like human beings! Imagine what would happen in Hawai`i if we actually developed a real philosophy that considered all imprisoned people as our neighbors? They will be, as more than 95% of imprisoned people will return to our communities.

This story is long, but worth reading as Hawai`i’s administration is pushing to increase the size of OCCC and is salivating about building more facilities while jurisdictions around the world are developing strategies that reduce their imprisoned populations. This is what happens when punishment is heaped on top of incarceration (loss of liberty IS punishment) and is more important than restoring lives.

Hawai`i sent a delegation to Norway (Kat hasn’t seen a report on that trip yet) and they saw the evidence presented in this article for themselves. Below are some excerpts from the article. It is long, however, we encourage you to read it and help us bring some sanity to this administration’s wrong-headed and secret direction.

Norway Proves That Treating Prison Inmates As Human Beings Actually Works

“Treat people like dirt, and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they will act like human beings.”

08/03/2016 08:59 am ET, HuffPOst
Baz Dreisinger, Associate professor of English, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

BASTOY ISLAND, Norway ― “Prison?” I asked the two deckhands, after a train carried me to the ferry. …

Excerpts:

“In Norway, when you’re released, you’re released,” he replied. “No big stigma. One guy I know spent 18 years in prison and is now living in my neighborhood. A normal old guy. No one cares. You find this a lot. I have many friends who’ve been to prison. Norwegians are very forgiving people.” He paused. “Strange because we weren’t always like that.”

“That’s an understatement. This is the land of the pillaging Vikings and of the Nordic sagas, depicted on wooden friezes outside Oslo’s city hall, which I had visited the other day. The sagas are long tales of violence, murder, jealousy and revenge, and it’s fascinating to think that somewhere deep in Norway’s past, a social tide turned, and a culture of peace and forgiveness came to triumph.

“Over lunch, Tom continued to impress me. He explained that although the ‘conservative’ party here would be considered liberal anywhere else and in general, the left and the right agree on the main threads of correctional policy, an influx of immigrants, rising xenophobia and conservative politics lately threaten to undermine the country’s progressive system and soft-on-crime approach. An anti-immigration Progress Party, part of the conservative-led government, is promoting a backlash against what’s known as ‘naving,’ or living off welfare ― NAV is the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration. In recent years, a local newspaper claimed that 80 percent of Norwegians want stricter punishments, and a 2010 survey showed that a majority felt punishments were generally too lenient.

“’It’s your media that’s also responsible,’ Tom said, biting into a slice of whole-grain toast with brown cheese. “American TV shows about tough prisons and talk about being ‘tough on crime.’ It influences people here. But thankfully that’s started to change. All the bad press in the past few years from you guys has started to make us not take you all so seriously anymore. Especially in elections. In the political speeches, those biblical references by a secular country? And Sarah Palin? People are laughing and also crying ― this is a country we want to imitate?”

(…)

study of home leave in Germany, I said, found that the failure-to-return rate amounts to a mere 1 percent.

“’Exactly,’ Tom nodded. ‘Here there were instances where prisoners committed crime while on home leave, but so few of them. You can’t construct a whole justice system around one or two exceptions.’

“ ‘I tell people, we’re releasing neighbors every year. Do you want to release them as ticking time bombs? Is that who you want living next to you? Hey’ ― he put down his toast ― ‘have you seen the film about the warden from Attica, New York?’

“A recent Finnish documentary depicts a former Attica superintendent’s tour of Halden, another prison in Norway focused on rehabilitation. Where the Norwegian officials see rehabilitation and correction, the American saw risk and danger. While Halden staff interacting with prisoners ― playing cards, for example ― is a vital part of Halden’s ideology, the American superintendent said that’s not allowed at the Attica prison.

(…)

“Nothing represents the Norwegian way like its prison system, which has adopted a ‘principle of normality,’ according to which punishment is the restriction of liberty itself and which mandates that no one shall serve their sentence under stricter circumstances than is required by the security of the community.

“Criminologist John Pratt summed up the Scandinavian approach using the term ‘penal exceptionalism,’ referring to these countries’ low rates of imprisonment and humane prison conditions. Prisons here are small, most housing fewer than 100 people and some just a handful. They’re spread all over the country, which keeps prisoners close to their families and communities, and are designed to resemble life on the outside as much as possible.

“An incarcerated person’s community continues to handle his health care, education and other social services while he’s incarcerated. The Norwegian import model, as it is known, thus connects people in prison to the same welfare organizations as other citizens and creates what’s called a seamless sentence ― a person belongs to the same municipality before and after prison. Sentences here are short, averaging an estimated eight months, as compared to America, where the estimated average sentence was 4.5 years in 2012. Almost no one serves all his time, and after one-third of it is complete, a person in prison can apply for home leave and spend up to half his sentence off the premises.

“And the most highly touted aspect of the humane Norwegian prison system is the fact that it seems to work. Crime rates are very low, and the recidivism rate is a mere 20 percent.”

It is going to take all of us and more to put things right in Hawai`i. As this article and many others have highlighted, good things are happening around the world to improve the quality of justice. Sadly, Hawai`i is stuck on retribution rather than restoration. WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT – WE CAN, AND MUST, CHANGE THIS!

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