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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

What the U.S. Should Learn From the Norwegian Prison System

Nickie Phillips

Tromso-city-winter-Norway-740

Valeriy Kipelov, Guest Blogger

Having realized that prison trends are pretty sad in the U.S. (mass incarceration), I tried to find an answer to this question: Is there a country in the world that deals with criminal offenders more efficiently than the U.S.? The answer popped up quickly. That country is Norway, and here is my reasoning.

Norway is a rich, highly developed democracy. It has a wide range of natural resources, a huge territory for quite small population of just five million people, and – most importantly – it has rich human capital and a strong respect for law and public order. That order to a great extent is reflected in something quite unique to Scandinavian countries, their approach to prisons. Just read what one Norwegian prison official said during an interview: We don't look at our inmates as criminals,but rather as regular people who have committed a crime. This idea of treating inmates as regular citizens who must (with professional help of the governmental institution) be rehabilitated and eventually brought back into normal society, is in my opinion very simple, yet amazing. Such a philosophy is actually the key to this country’s unbelievable rehabilitative successes.

norwegian flag

In Western countries deprivation of freedom was once believed to be the harshest way to punish criminals. So, deprivation of freedom is already itself a punishment and the main idea thereof: locking offenders up, so that they have a certain amount of time to reflect, to fully realize the gravity and negative effect of their actions. Aggravating the deprivation of freedom with collateral hardships, which are by the way not necessarily legal or moral, is not only unjust, but also counterproductive. The goal of a well-functioning society is to manage crime rates and keep them low by promoting and running effective criminal justice systems. This is exactly what the Norwegian authorities have been able to do during the last few decades, and what we, the United States, are so far not capable of doing.

Look at some self-explanatory statistics: The incarceration ratio per 100,000 is 72 in Norway and 716 in the US. So, we are at the number one in the world in terms of incarceration rate, whereas they, the Norwegians, are at number 176; Murder rates -- 0.6 murder cases per 100,000 citizens in Norway, 5 per 10,000 in the U.S. Finally, the most self explanatory piece of data – the recidivism rates; 68% in the U.S., 20% in Norway.

Now that it is evident that one country is much more successful in deterring recidivism than the other – how is it possible in practice?  A Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie introduced his own theory that states that every offender deserves "re-socialization.” In Norwegian state prisons such as, for example Bastoy or Halden, they try to re-socialize the inmates through forestry work, gardening, and taking care of the animals. This type of work is believed to have the most pacifying and rehabilitating effect.

Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie (Photo: www.universitetsforlaget.no)

An interesting fact: all Norwegian corrections officers work without weapons, which would probably sound crazy for an American correctional officer. The reason is that weapons create the atmosphere of hostility and aggression that guns normally imply. And one of the main tenets of Norwegian penitentiary system is the like-home environment inside the prison, which has proven to be effective in reforming the inmates. You probably remember the most famous Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 people a couple of years ago. That guy, despite the atrocity that he committed, is not rotting in some dungeon. He enjoys himself in Halden prison, where he has a cozy room (instead of a dirty cell), tasty whole food, world-class healthcare, all sorts of amenities including the Internet and television, plenty of free time and even the possibility to earn another higher education degree.

Shocking? Halden’s wardens say they don’t see anything unusual about this approach. The formula of Norwegian success seems clear: you treat inmates as regular people, promote and create a culture of respect within all prisons – and you have less inmates re-entering the system; you treat them harshly, in an inhuman way and without providing for their basic (or even – advanced) needs, allowing violence in the cells and in prison yards – you get more hardened criminals full of hatred, who will never ever return to normal life, and will most likely come back to the lockup again and again.

Different countries highlight different goals of punishment. Norway, as we now clearly see – puts rehabilitation at the top, and this concept pays off exceedingly. I truly believe that the U.S. needs to seriously consider adopting the Norwegian prison model. Our prison population keeps growing. We build more and more correctional institutions and promote the culture of control-- and it has to be reversed.

At the same time I fully realize how much must happen before American society shifts its point of view and accepts such a radical and liberal policy transfer. The cultural differences are huge. The U.S. is a highly diverse, multicultural nation, while about 86% of Norway citizens are ethnic Norwegian, which makes it a much more homogeneous state than the US. It is surely much harder for the American people of wide variety of cultural/ethnic backgrounds to reach some consensus; we don’t have anything remotely liberal in our prison system, while they, Norwegians, have had such a modus operandi for decades.

The U.S. could technically afford liberalizing by decriminalizing certain petty offenses, incarcerating less people, and directing the saved funds to rehabilitating purposes, similar to the Norwegian approach. But this would require clear realization of such necessity and sincere political will. You bet: building golf fields for rapists would not be the best line in a politician’s election campaign. So, the shift in our mindset would require the public will and a lot of political and educational work. Incarcerating more offenders means killing the symptoms of the social disease; rehabilitating the offenders and cutting the recidivism rate means curing that disease. And we need to make the right choice when reforming our prison system.

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Valeriy Kipelov was born in Debrecen, Hungary, and raised in Kiev, Ukraine. He lived in Germany for a year and earned a BA in Linguistics (English, German, Ukrainian) from Kiev National Linguistic University.  He also has a BA in Criminal Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Currently, he is in the MA Program in International Crime and Justice at John Jay College. He has worked as a news anchor/reporter for RTVi, a Russian television station in NYC. Kipelov is pursuing a career in U.S. law enforcement.