Comparing the US and Norwegian prison systems

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.

Human Rights Watch issued a wide-ranging report in 2003 describing the conditions in such prisons. One section described the daily routine of the prisoners.

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.


  1. Scr... Archivist says

    But weren’t U.S. prisons this bad even before privatization? If so, there’s something else going on.

    I’ve always thought they were a reincarnation of the plantation system.

  2. Sercee says

    The people who run the US prison system (and their best buddy the court system) are not interested in serving justice, rehabilitating criminals, or protecting the common good. I know our Canadian system is much closer to the US version, and will keep getting worse with Harper in power. I read that article about the Bastoy prison a while ago and I keep holding it up as about the best way you could possibly do things. Few people see it though -- we’re so used to the idea that somehow criminals aren’t people that we dehumanize them as much as possible and take away all hope that they’ll ever regain their footing. We’re too scared of them, and we treat too many behaviors as criminal.

    I’m half Norwegian, so I’m biased, but I keep saying that if I was ever to leave Canada that’s where I’d go. They get so many things right.

  3. Anthony K says

    I wonder how much of the recidivism rates in the US are due not only to the lack of resocialisation and rehabilitation in the prison system, but the systemic factors in the US justice system that got them incarcerated in the first place.

  4. Jared A says

    my brother taught a university course on crime and punishment, and he explained to me that to understand what is crime, you must understand what for is punishment. In truth, criminal punishment is used as a social engineering tool. For example, debtors prisons were used historically as a way of manipulating the labor pool in response to industrialization. The ruling class moved working class people in and out of prisons as a way to force them to not work; this way labor costs and productivity could be optimized for their needs.

    Using the same principles we can understand prisons in the USA quite well. High recidivism rates means that the ruling class has deemed it necessary that more people be imprisoned. In this case it is more to do with needs for consumers of prison profiteering, and cheap (slave) labor (as Scr. Archvist was saying).

    It’s important to understand that this isn’t about consipiracies. It’s just that if enough of the power elite are acting in their own self-interest than this is how the system evolves.

    If the linked articles are to be believed, it sounds like Norway is using its prison as a rehabilitation system, which makes a lot of sense to me. But, then, I’m a humanist.

  5. paulo says

    The main difference,in my point of view , is the business aspect of the incarceration system in the US.
    As long as there is money to be made, either by providing the incarceration service or by the manufacture and sale of products made by the prisoners at sub standard wages, there will be no change.
    Some people like to call the prison system by correctional system, to an inmate this must be the ultimate joke. It’s a punishing system that focus solely on the present and fails to look ahead, hence the absurd recidivism rates.

  6. smrnda says

    The evidence that the US prison system doesn’t work is overwhelming for anyone wiling to do a little bit of research, but I think too many people don’t care. They would rather we have a costly ,useless, but vindictive system since it somehow satisfies their need for socially acceptable institutionalized brutality.

  7. AsqJames says

    I imagine the societal attitude to ex-prisoners once they get out is a factor too. From what I understand it’s virtually impossible for an ex-con to get a legitimate job in the US.

    It’s all a bit self-fulfilling/never ending feedback loop/downward spiral really isn’t it…a culture that prioritises retribution above rehabilitation and regards ex-cons as close to sub-human upon release >> little opportunity to go straight >> high recidivism >> reinforces cultural attitudes to crime/criminals.

    Plus, you can’t break the cycle without gaining political power, but you can’t gain political power unless you endorse/pander to the cultural attitude. And then there’s the point Dara O’Briain makes here.

  8. Avril Walsh says

    I am doing a presentation on comparing Norways prisons to UK. where can I get some referenced information from please…… this is good what I read, i need to good references tho

  9. Jon says

    While I want to agree with these arguments and say that the American prison system is trash, as are most of our aging public services, I can’t seem to do it. I find myself hesitating when I consider the disparate variety of people that we have in America, in addition to the enormous land mass that we cover. I also think it’s worth mentioning that we incarcerate a huge number of people for minor drug infractions, which apparently go free in Norway. I agree that we need an overhaul, and that Norway should be held up as a golden standard, I just don’t know how it could be modified to realistically apply to the American people.

    As was earlier mentioned, the first thing that needs to happen is getting everyone to put down their need for revenge and actually confront the problem where it really exists. Such a process is long and drawn out, and most likely painful with no immediate results. American hate that, we are far too used to instant gratification and quick fixes that we can feel. We are horrible at long term projection. Perhaps we dream too much to hope for progress… or I’m just a bitter old man! Glad to see others thinking about it though!

  10. belzerbru says

    “The US incarcerates people at over ten times the rate of Norway (743 per 100,000 versus 71)”
    I’m surprised it’s only ten times…. Hope that is persons and not years in total..

  11. says

    ” It’s a punishing system that focus solely on the present and fails to look ahead”
    That was well put.
    …and therefore is an Immoral system. Moral law I consider to be the highest law on the planet you can follow. Cause no harm, not to yourself or others, and basically help others.
    Punishing or torturing people is definitely causing harm. Locking someone up for 23 hours a day is not helping either. Is it even possible to be a moral Law enforcement Industry worker.

  12. Hmmm says

    Could the U.S. recividism rate be so high because the freed prisoners just love crime? They are greedy, for instance, and go out and return to do the same crime that locked them up in the first place…such as robbery.
    I agree that the prisons need cleaning up…but I like the way Sheriff Arpaio runs things. Criminals are there to pay a debt to society--not enjoy a bunch of perks. One thing I would have removed from EVERY prison in the U.S. are barbells. Prisoners have no business being more toughened up than the guards. Treadmills and stretch bands are fine enough.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *