Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reflections on Norway

As Bryan's most recent post explains, Norway is continuing to make international headlines not only for the tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of innocent lives but also for their "unconventional" approach to incarceration.

I have been fortunate enough to spend time in prisons both in the US and Norway. The differences couldn't be any more pronounced. The contrasts are numerous. Below, I articulate my perceptions of the three most distinct differences.

Appearance
In the US I had to drive for miles down long dusty roads before even reaching the prison grounds. The prisons were typically "out of sight out of mind." In Norway, the feel was very different. The prison I visited was nestled in this lovely little neighborhood. I noticed children riding their bikes by the prison as we entered. The level of fear that is palpable in the US simply wasn't present in Norway.

Inside the experiences continued to differ. In the US I walked through a metal detector, removed my shoes, and had to leave my keys and cell phone in a locker. The inside of the prisons had 100 year old barred cells or newer cement block rooms. In Norway, the prison staff (and the people in general) were not suspicious. They believed that we as researchers had no intention to manipulate or harm any one. The cells felt like college dorm rooms. They were private spaces for the incarcerated individuals to get away from everyone else in the prison. They each papered their walls with personal items (pictures, posters, etc). They had private showers. They were allowed to wear their own clothes. These perks are not allowed in the US prison system. As one correctional officer explained, Norwegians don't strip prisoners of their identities.

Attitude
The attitudes regarding incarceration and the prison system are starkly different. In Norway, being a correctional officer is a highly respected, sought after, and desirable profession. The job does not come with the stigma so often associated with COs here in the US. I would guess that part of the reason for the difference is that Norwegians don't see incarcerated individuals as distinctly different from themselves. They simply view people as people. In fact, several correctional officers in Norway emphasized that prisoners were people just like them, but they had made some mistakes. The social hierarchy that exists in many other cultures is far more muted in Norwegian society. In the words of one Norwegian prison employee, "just because someone has made a bad choice does not make him a bad person."

Aims
Simply put~ most US prisons are designed for punishment whereas Norwegian prisons seek to rehabilitate inmates.

Notably, there are prisons in the US that have a strong focus on rehabilitation (e.g., One private prison I visited in TX focused on behavior modification). However, these facilities are not in the majority.

In Norway, however, most of the programs offer various types of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Additionally, prisoners live relatively "normal" lives. They are arguably more prepared to succeed on the outside since they are not completely isolated from the "world" while incarcerated. Many inmates are even allowed to go on "vacation" from prison (or furlough). They take unmonitored leave from prison to visit family and return after their time (usually a week) is up. This article highlights some of the other benefits afforded prisoners in Norwegian prisons. I personally did not encounter a rock wall, but many of the other examples were true to my own experience.

This post is full of personal reflections based on my research experiences. Overall, I truly believe that the Norwegians are doing something right, and I would certainly argue that we can learn something from them.

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