With the news that Sweden has reduced its overall prison population enough to warrant the closure of four prisons and a remand centre, the ‘liberal’ Scandinavian prison model is again under the spotlight. Countries like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are often lauded for their humane and distinct prison systems; Bastøy, Norway’s island prison, is often noted for its communal living quarters, extensive access for inmates to education, and, derisively by critics, its “holiday camp”-like atmosphere. Indeed, it appears that this system is at least partially effective – the Council of Europe’s study on Europe-wide rates of recidivism shows that Scandinavian countries have among the lowest rates of both re-offence and incarceration in the region.
But does the Scandinavian model provide any insight for countries with larger, less homogenous populations overall and substantially higher rates of incarceration? Are these models in any way exportable to the United Kingdom and the United States, where rates of recidivism hover around 47.5 percent* and 67.5 percent respectively? It may be argued that it is unreasonable to expect a country like the United States, where the incarceration rate sits at a unmatched 726 per 100,000 people, to easily modify its current risk management and administrative correctional approach to one emphasizing access to vocational training programs, but this may be a vital transition for the interests of public safety and governmental efficiency. Some smaller-scale applications of rehabilitative and re-entry focused programs have proven successful in the United States. The state of Michigan’s re-entry program provides inmates tailored pre- and post-release services, including counseling and assistance finding employment. These services coupled with the communal responsibility of the program’s success have resulted in a regional decrease in recidivism from 55 percent to 38 percent.
It is important to note that prisons in Scandinavian countries are still condemned by justice-focused institutions for human rights violations; Denmark’s generous utilization of solitary confinement for remand prisoners is among the most egregious of these criticisms. However, it remains the case that Scandinavian prisons overall provide substantially better environments for inmates, who in turn reintegrate into society more easily and with less likelihood of posing a threat to the general public. One can make arguments in favour of this rehabilitative, holistic approach to incarceration range based on a platform of human rights compliance – it is the obligation of states party to the ICCPR, for instance, to have a penal system aimed at the reformation and rehabilitation of offenders – or to reduce rates of violence toward prisoners and prison staff. One of the most effective, if least altruistic, of these arguments however is that if one of the central purposes of incarceration is crime control and a reduction in the incidents of criminal activity, adopting elements of a system which seemingly positively impacts the reintegration of offenders is vital.
Of course, this proposition directly contravenes the palatable ‘tough on crime’ stance that many politicians in Western countries adopt. But in the face of news of disturbing trends in American prisons, for example, where inmates can be denied basic goods or services for evidently arbitrary reasons, it is essential that archaic methods of incarceration and retributive theories of punishment are discarded in favour of policies that actually work to reduce recidivism. This may be the best way to effectively protect public safety, shrink costs to law enforcement bodies, and produce ex-offenders who become contributors to society upon release.
The solutions to problems of international, national, and sub-national prison systems (and criminal justice systems as a whole) are complex and take time to establish. Despite this, it is these potential solutions, theories, events, and policies impacting offenders, public safety, criminal behavior, and reintegration that we hope to discuss on this blog.
*According to the 2012 Bromley Briefings, 47.5 percent of UK prisoners re-offend within one year of release, a rate which rises to 51 percent for female offenders, 57.6 percent for those serving less than one-year, and nearly 70 percent for juvenile offenders.