Why Norway Helps Prisoners and America Fails Them

June 1st 2015

At first glance, Norway's Halden Prison wouldn't strike you as place where people serve time.

You won't find guard towers, guns, or razor wire surrounding Halden, but forests - like pine and birch trees. Are Hoidal, who runs the facility, says it was intended to look like something other than a prison. 

"The buildings [could] be a university, hospital, school, something like that," Hoidal recently said in an interview with NPR

Halden, which is five years old, spends about triple the amount on its average prisoner (about $90,000) than the U.S. system spends. Inmates at Halden also receive private rooms with a TV, shower, fridge, and wood furniture. It might sound luxurious for those serving time, but at the heart of this approach is a philosophy that appears to be effective. Norway has a 20 percent recidivism rate, which is among the lowest in the world, according to a March 2014 report from Rhode Island's Salve Regina University. In the U.S., more than 75 percent of released inmates are re-arrested after getting out of prison. Norway's incarceration rate is 75 per 100,000 while the U.S. rate is more than ten times higher at 707 per 100,000, totaling more than 2 million people behind bars.

A culture of equality

Karin Dwyer-Loken, a Maryland native who teaches history and English at Halden, told NPR that the prison treats inmates with respect. The culture is such that Halden staffers can be seen eating with inmates in designated dining spots and playing games with them in the gym.

"Anybody can learn anything," she said. "Anybody can change their lives with the right kind of help, guidance, giving them a chance ... Their punishment is being locked up. Their punishment is not to be treated badly while they're locked up."

Halden focuses on rehabilitation over punishment

Because Norway has a 21-year limit to prison sentences (although some prisoners get extensions if the system doesn't believe the inmate has been rehabilitated by the conclusion of his/her sentence) and no death penalty, Halden aims to prepare inmates to enter the real world upon serving time. The facility has wood-working programs, assembly workshops, and a recording studio that inmates are free to use.

"[All] inmates in Norwegian prison are going back to the society," Hoidal previously said in a video by Gughi Fassino and Emanuela Zuccalà. "Do you want people who are angry — or people who are rehabilitated?"

Why Norway's Bastoy Prison has also been successful

Two years ago, The Guardian reported that Norway's minimum security Bastoy Prison had a recidivism rate of 16 percent, which is the lowest in Europe. Bastoy director Arne Nilsen said his facility stresses the value of treating inmates like people rather than merely criminals.

"In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking," Nilsen told The Guardian. "In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings."

Nilsen added that it's crucial to show prisoners how to adapt to society while they're behind bars so they're less likely to commit crimes when they're back in the outside world again. 

"For the victim, the offender is in prison," he said. "That is justice ... Here I give prisoners respect; this way we teach them to respect others. But we are watching them all the time. It is important that when they are released they are less likely to commit more crimes. That is justice for society."

Several months ago, ATTN: interviewed Tyrone Hood, a man who spent more than two decades in prison for a crime he never committed. Though Hood was happy to be released 22 years later, he faced many challenges assimilating to non-prison life.

"I don’t even know how to go out to the store and buy clothes that match, my niece has to show me that," Hood told ATTN: at the time. "I don’t even know how to pump gas, or pay a bill, or use the cell phone, or the Internet ... [S]ome of the technology has changed at least 96 percent, so I’ve gotta learn from scratch."

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