Monday, March 30, 2015

Norway's Halden prison

"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

I'M SHARING this article from the March 26, 2015 New York Times Magazine in its entirety not because I'm advocating a viewpoint, but as a means of contributing to the discourse about crime and punishment in this country. I'll be honest about a personal bias, though; my fear is that incarceration in the United States is a for-profit industry with so much money at stake that decisions in the best interests of society are unlikely to be made when they run counter to profit-driven motives.


The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison

By Jessica Benko
March 26, 2015

Like everything else in Norway, the tw­o-­hour drive southeast from Oslo seemed impossibly civilized. The highways were perfectly maintained and painted, the signs clear and informative and the speed-­monitoring cameras primly intolerant. My destination was the town of Halden, which is on the border with Sweden, straddling a narrow fjord guarded by a 17th-­century fortress. I drove down winding roads flanked in midsummer by rich green fields of young barley and dense yellow carpets of rapeseed plants in full flower. Cows clustered in wood-­fenced pastures next to neat farmsteads in shades of rust and ocher. 


On the outskirts of town, across from a road parting dark pine forest, the turnoff to Norway’s newest prison was marked by a modest sign that read, simply, HALDEN ­FENGSEL. There were no signs warning against picking up hitchhikers, no visible fences. Only the 25-­foot-­tall floodlights rising along the edges hinted that something other than grazing cows lay ahead.

Smooth, featureless concrete rose on the horizon like the wall of a dam as I approached; nearly four times as tall as a man, it snaked along the crests of the hills, its top curled toward me as if under pressure. This was the outer wall of Halden Fengsel, which is often called the world’s most humane maximum-­security prison. I walked up the quiet driveway to the entrance and presented myself to a camera at the main door. There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers — nothing violent, threatening or dangerous. And yet no prisoner has ever tried to escape. I rang the intercom, the lock disengaged with a click and I stepped inside.


To anyone familiar with the American correctional system, Halden seems alien. Its modern, cheerful and well-­appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere — these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.


The treatment of inmates at Halden is wholly focused on helping to prepare them for a life after they get out. Not only is there no death penalty in Norway, there are no life sentences. The maximum term for any crime is 21 years — even for Anders Behring Breivik, who is responsible for probably the deadliest recorded rampage in the world, in which he killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in 2011 by detonating a bomb at a government building in Oslo and then opening fire at a nearby summer camp. 


“Better out than in” is an unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service, which makes a reintegration guarantee to all released inmates. It works with other government agencies to secure a home, a job and access to a supportive social network for each inmate before release; Norway’s social safety net also provides health care, education and a pension to all citizens. With one of the highest per capita gross domestic products of any country in the world, thanks to the profits from oil production in the North Sea, Norway is in a good position to provide all of this, and spending on the Halden prison runs to more than $93,000 per inmate per year, compared with just $31,000 for prisoners in the United States, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.


The ceramics workshop at Halden Fengsel.

It is tempting to chalk up all this reasonableness to something peculiar in Norwegian socialization, some sort of civility driven core-­deep into the inmates since birth, or perhaps attribute it to their racial and ethnic homogeneity as a group. But in actuality, only around three-­fifths of the inmates are legal Norwegian citizens. 


Click here to read the entire article.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That is a powerful piece and an even more powerful concept. I'm a bleeding heart liberal so have always believed that rehab would be better for society, for the budget and for the inmates themselves. It should include detox from whatever substance you need help with, education, including how to budget, run a check book, communicate with coworkers, friends and families, parenting and whatever else would help that person manage in the real world. Including counseling for mental health. How far are we from the stocks of old?

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