The way we treat prisoners in the US has never made any sense to me. This country is easily the world’s leader in the total number of prisoners and in the per capita number. The US prison system is an exceedingly cruel and inhumane (and expensive) system, with some prisoners (especially those in so-called supermax facilities) spending almost their entire time in solitary confinement in their cells.
Prisoners typically spend their waking and sleeping hours locked alone in small, sometimes windowless cells, some of which are sealed with solid steel doors. They are fed in their cells, their food passed to them on trays through a slot in the door. Between two and five times a week, they are let out of their cells for showers and solitary exercise in a small enclosed space. Most have little or no access to education, recreational, or vocational activities or other sources of mental stimulation. Radios and televisions are usually prohibited; the number of books or magazines reduced to a bare minimum – if any.
It doesn’t have to be this way. This article describes one of the harshest prisons in Norway.
Four years ago I was invited into Skien maximum security prison, 20 miles north of Oslo. I had heard stories about Norway’s liberal attitude. In fact, Skien is a concrete fortress as daunting as any prison I have ever experienced and houses some of the most serious law-breakers in the country. Recently it was the temporary residence of Anders Breivik, the man who massacred 77 people in July 2011.
Despite the seriousness of their crimes, however, I found that the loss of liberty was all the punishment they suffered. Cells had televisions, computers, integral showers and sanitation. Some prisoners were segregated for various reasons, but as the majority served their time – anything up to the 21-year maximum sentence (Norway has no death penalty or life sentence) – they were offered education, training and skill-building programmes. Instead of wings and landings they lived in small “pod” communities within the prison, limiting the spread of the corrosive criminal prison subculture that dominates traditionally designed prisons. The teacher explained that all prisons in Norway worked on the same principle, which he believed was the reason the country had, at less than 30%, the lowest reoffending figures in Europe and less than half the rate in the UK.
But most of the article describes another Norwegian prison which is located on an island called Bastoy and can only be reached by a ferry which is operated by one of the inmates.
There are 70 members of staff on the 2.6 sq km island during the day, 35 of whom are uniformed guards. Their main job is to count the prisoners – first thing in the morning, twice during the day at their workplaces, once en masse at a specific assembly point at 5pm, and finally at 11pm, when they are confined to their respective houses. Only four guards remain on the island after 4pm. Thorbjorn points out the small, brightly painted wooden bungalows dotted around the wintry landscape. “These are the houses for the prisoners,” he says. They accommodate up to six people. Every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities. “The idea is they get used to living as they himself live when they are released.” Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall. The men earn the equivalent of £6 a day and are given a food allowance each month of around £70 with which to buy provisions for their self-prepared breakfasts and evening meals from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket.
Interestingly, the person who wrote the article had himself been a prisoner in the UK system for serious offenses some time ago and he reflected on the difference between what he saw in Norway and his own experience in prison, which at that time seems similar to the US now.
As a life prisoner, I spent the first eight years of the 20 I served in a cell with a bed, a chair, a table and a bucket for my toilet. In that time I was caught up in a major riot, trapped in a siege and witnessed regular acts of serious violence. Across the prison estate, several hundred prisoners took their own lives, half a dozen of whom I knew personally – and a number were murdered. Yet the constant refrain from the popular press was that I, too, was living in a “holiday camp”. When in-cell toilets were installed, and a few years later we were given small televisions, the “luxury prison” headlines intensified and for the rest of the time I was in prison, it never really abated.
It always seemed to me while I was in jail that the real prison scandal was the horrendous rate of reoffending among released prisoners. In 2007, 14 prisons in England and Wales had reconvictions rates of more than 70%. At an average cost of £40,000 a year for each prisoner, this amounts to a huge investment in failure – and a total lack of consideration for potential future victims of released prisoners.
The US system is the end product of a scared population, a political class that panders to the worst fears of the public, a vindictive and retributive mindset that places a greater value on satisfying the desire for vengeance on the part of victims, their families, and the larger society rather than on preventing future victims.
The US incarcerates people at over ten times the rate of Norway (743 per 100,000 versus 71). This may be dismissed by suggesting that Norway only incarcerates the toughest criminals while letting minor offenders go free. But the recidivism rate in Norway is only 20% while in the US 67% of prisoners are rearrested and 52% go to jail again. Surely we should have a better system than the broken one we have now?
Of course, when you have a large scale broken system, it is usually not the result of a mistake that people are either unaware of or don’t know how to fix. It is often a deliberate creation and some people somewhere are benefitting from it. In this case it is the private prison industry that makes a bundle out of incarcerating lots of people for long times in high security (hence expensive) buildings and I will write about them tomorrow.