I have been fascinated with Scandinavian policy choices for a few years now. It’s becoming a growing topic of conversation amongst Western nations, as Scandinavian countries consistently outperform us in education, health, and the World Happiness Report. It can often seem like they have it all figured out. Whilst this isn’t true (I’d highly recommend The Nearly Almost Perfect People by Michael Booth), there are certain areas in which the statistics simply can’t be argued with. The recidivism rate in Norway is 20%, compared to around 60% in the UK, and 70% in the USA. So what is it that makes Norway’s prisoners so much less likely to re-offend?
Recidivism is a complex social phenomenon that can’t be explained with one simple ingredient. Just as a crime is a product of personality, socioeconomics, childhood experiences and more, it can be hard to understand the reasons behind reoffending. Here in the UK people face deeply unpleasant conditions in prison, so why would they ever want to go back? Some theorists would argue that the answer lies in simple psychology.
If you treat people like they are animals, they will act as though they are animals.
Our environment provides us with a number of cues as to how we should behave. When your environment suggests that you are expected to misbehave, and cannot be trusted, how will you ever become trustworthy? Based on this, Norweigan prisons function under the “Normality Principle”. The idea is that prison life should approximate as closely as possible life in the outside world. Prisoners are treated with respect and dignity, and it is expected that they will treat others with the same.
To a British eye, Halden prison may look more like a hotel, or a modern student halls building than a prison. In fact, The Tab (a website dedicated to student journalism) even created an online quiz entitled “Is this bedroom from your uni’s halls or a prison?” in which Norweigan prison cells are prominently featured. It’s harder than you’d expect. Cells in Halden prison have TVs, mini-fridges, windows and bright airy walls and floors. Prisoners share communal kitchens where they are expected to cook most of their own meals before they head off to work at the on-site garage or to sessions at the music studio. Prisoners who choose not to work are locked inside their rooms all day, making it a choice that most will avoid. Rather than the menial labour undertaken by American prisoners for pitiful wages, Norweigan prisoners are taught a real profession that they can use outside of incarceration. They develop the skills they will need to make an honest living, which is another protective factor against reoffending. To make their own meals, prisoners take a trip to the prison supermarket, where they can purchase groceries (no alcohol is available) using their digital ID cards. When prisoners are not working, they may be seen sat on their sofas chatting with guards, or playing cards. As long as they treat the guards with respect, they will be treated with the same. That is not to say that the guards lack authority. There are of course some prisoners who do not co-operate and are extracted to solitary confinement (by guards decked up in full riot-gear) when they become a danger to themselves or others. It is not a flawless utopia of love, peace and joy; but it’s a far cry from the ceaseless violence and provocation of other systems.
All prisoners in Halden are psychologically assessed in a separate unit before being placed into the general population. This allows time to address issues with drug addiction or work out medical plans for patients with psychiatric disorders. Even before being placed in this unit, it’s clear Halden is a different genre of prison; guards shake the prisoner’s hand when they walk through the gate, laying the foundations of a relationship based on amicability rather than intimidation. All the guards at Halden have to complete a two-year university degree, with a focus on ethics, psychology, and law.
Halden does come at a cost. The cost per prisoner per year is £116,000 compared to the UK’s average of £45,000. At first glance, that figure alone may seem enough to justify maintaining our current system. With a little digging, the disparity seems to narrow. We have double as many people per 100 incarcerated as Norway does, doubling our cost. If our recidivism decreased to Norway’s 20% from our 60%, the savings would again be enormous. In 2015–16 the UK spent £2,753,747,261 on its prisoners. This is an enormous amount of money, and for what? With 60% of prisoners going back, and 1 in 5 prisoners testing positive for substance abuse whilst incarcerated; our system is clearly broken. I for one would rather spend more on a system that works than less on one that doesn’t. Prisons aren’t just about cutting cost though, they are a reflection of the values that any particular society holds. Norweigan prisons reflect the broader Scandinavian trends of socialist democracies, with higher taxes and more welfare. People are viewed as fundamentally deserving, whereas the individualistic cultures of the UK and USA are based on the idea that you have to earn money, dignity and respect. In Norway no life sentences are given, the maximum is 21 years. There is, of course, a caveat to this, any prisoner deemed unrehabilitated at the end of their sentence can have 5 years added on, and this process can continue indefinitely. I can only imagine the psychological impact of a life sentence. If you know that you will never live in the outside world again, what gain is there to be had from rehabilitating?
The question that we have to ask ourselves is this; What do we want from our prisons? Are we a society that incarcerates people for revenge, retribution, or for rehabilitation?
Norway’s answer seems clear, ours is less so. The punishment of prison is that you are imprisoned, you no longer have the freedom to come and go as you please, to see family, to travel, to dictate your own schedule. Is this not punishment enough? What is to be gained from the violence, degradation and rigidity of our current system, and that of the USA? Looking at the figures it is clear that we are not doing as well as we can be, and yet stubbornly we continue on the same path with no clear intention of change. I think it comes down to emotion. In the UK we want our prisoners to suffer, we view them deserving of punishment and poor conditions. People may cry “But what about the victims!”, yet research shows that the victim’s desire for revenge is not resolved in line with the severity of punishment. There is no ‘eye for an eye’ that will resolve the harm victims have suffered, they need support rather than retribution if they are to move past their experiences. The idea of prisoners having a TV is preposterous to us — why should they find enjoyment or relaxation after the crimes they have committed? This emotional response of outrage is far from productive and defies the facts that we have available to us. It is madness to base such an important system on feeling, we should be striving for a humane system that can deliver real results, and save us money in the long-term. Our prison system is a blemish on our society, and its easier for us to ignore it rather than address the mistakes that have been made. However, just becomes something is easy, does not mean it is right. How much longer will we keep ploughing money into a failing system before we agree that enough is enough? I can only hope that the answer is; no longer.
Image from Wikipedia Commons and used under Creative Commons licensing.