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Politics

Let's Think About a Different Kind of Prison System

Diane Dimond on

Show of hands: How many readers believe that the U.S. prison system truly works to rehabilitate convicts before releasing them back into society?

I'm betting not many hands went up.

A quick history of America's correctional-industrial complex shows that up until the late '60s, the goal really was to rehabilitate prisoners so they could have a better chance of success when they got out. But in the early '70s that mindset changed, and we adopted a system of harsh mass incarceration, including extraordinarily long, no-parole sentences, even for first-time offenders.

The result has been an enormously expensive disaster. According to the nonprofit American Public Health Association, our correctional facilities are grossly overcrowded and have "transformed into dehumanizing, punishment-oriented regimes" that care little about the human being and center almost solely on institutional security. Many prisons are crumbling compounds populated with brutal, degrading guards and are plagued with gang violence, sexual assault and suicide.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. to realize what kind of traumatized person comes out of a typical U.S. prison. And once released, the stigmatized ex-con still must deal with the unbending parole system, which often makes them feel as though they're still incarcerated.

The country of Norway does things very differently and corrections officials from a handful of U.S. states have taken serious notice.

 

Norway's society is smaller and significantly different from ours. We are a melting pot of various minority groups. Norway is more monolithic with much less interracial conflict. But the Norwegian approach to incarceration offers important lessons to be considered.

Sentences in Norway are never more than 21 years, no matter the crime committed. And from day one convicts are treated like human beings who, for whatever reason, temporarily lost their way in life and are worthy of being rehabilitated.

"It's really very simple," the head of Norway's Bastoy Island prison said. "Treat people like dirt and they will be dirt. Treat them like human beings and they will act like human beings."

Bastoy is one of Norway's "open prisons." Convicts work the land and grow much of their own food. They bicycle across the vast campus to attend classes on a wide range of traditional and technical subjects. They are encouraged to think about the job they want on the outside. Convicts nearing the end of their sentences are allowed to work off-site.

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