Believe it or not, humane treatment breeds humanity.
The US prison system is an overstuffed, rotting piece of work that makes its investors rich and its tenants embittered. The typical American reaction to such a sentiment is knee-jerky and righteous: He who doesn’t want to be imprisoned shouldn’t commit a crime in the first place.
Well, duh. But that doesn’t excuse the architects of the prison industrial complex?—?they, the sinless stone-casters?—?from doing their best to design a responsible and humane system. Which is currently not their MO.
Leave aside the fact that the US boasts 25% of the world’s total prison population (but only 5% of Earth’s total people). Or the fact that private prison labor incentivizes corporate interests to lobby for longer sentences (even when the crimes are laughably minor). There must be some good coming of our unchecked enthusiasm for locking up 1 in 110 members of our adult population, right?
Apparently not. Recidivism rates, according to the National Institute of Justice, are hovering around 75% in the 5 years after a prisoner’s release. Not impressive.
Especially unimpressive when compared to Norway’s recidivism rate of 20%. Norway, that much-maligned welfare state that hands out healthcare and education like lollipops. Why would we want to take a cue from them? The best they’ve given us is Voss water, and who even drinks that?
Turns out, Norway’s got some decent ideas vis-à-vis how to run a lockup. In Baz Dreisinger’s book, “Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World,” which was excerpted in August by The Huffington Post, she recounts a visit to Bastoy, one of Norway’s “open prisons,” an island where inmates live and work together.
The prison’s governor, Tom, (not warden, as Dreisinger reminds us) said this of the operation:
“There’s a perception that, ‘Oh, this is the lightweight prison; you just take the nice guys for the summer-camp prison.’ But in fact, no. Our guys are into, pardon my French, some heavy shit. Drugs and violence. And the truth is, some have been problematic in other prisons but then they come here, and we find them easy. We say, ‘Is that the same guy you called difficult?’ It’s really very simple: Treat people like dirt, and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings, and they will act like human beings.”
The foundation of such a system is Norway’s “principle of normality,” the idea that incarceration is, by nature, its own punishment. In other words, restriction of freedom is the punishment; the circumstances of that restriction should be no stricter than absolutely necessary to maintain the safety of the surrounding community.
The men at Bastoy Prison tend to crops, they raise animals. They live in shared cabins. And when they’re released, they rarely return. Governor Tom told Dreisinger, “In Norway, when you’re released, you’re released. 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.”
Nobody expects the United States to start having inmates shack up and raise sheep on Alcatraz. But perhaps reducing non-violent incarcerations and introducing a little of Norway’s humane touch would be a good start. After all, you can’t argue with a 55% recidivism differential.