If you’ve been convicted of a crime and sentenced to a term in prison, your quality of life is going to diminish drastically. That’s just how it is in the United States. This isn’t some kind of natural law, but the result of the American prison system, which stands in stark contrast to more reform-minded Scandinavian prisons.
American prisons are notorious for being overpopulated and for having harsh living conditions. Few people view American prisons as places where people go to be reformed; instead, they are seen as places to go to serve out a punishment. American prisons are notorious for their gangs, their strict rules and their violence. When prisoners receive amenities, such as televisions or fitness rooms, many Americans grumble that we’re being too kind.
But what if it’s not about kindness versus cruelty? If we stop thinking in terms of what convicts deserve, we can start thinking in terms of what makes society safer. As a consequence, we begin to treat prisoners with more dignity and humanity.
In Scandinavian countries, like Denmark and Norway, prisons are much different. There are still high security prisons, much like our own, for offenders who do not qualify for more progressive facilities. But those progressive facilities are worth looking at.
The Washington Post investigated Danish prisons for six weeks. They did not find a fantastic utopia free of problems, but they did find better conditions that led either to similar outcomes or to better outcomes.
According to the report, prisoners practice more independence. They wear their own clothes, cook their own meals (yes, with knives), and enjoy private visits. There is very little security preventing prisoners from escaping. There are no barbed-wire fences and no gun towers. In both the United States and Denmark, the rate of prisoner death is less than 1%, so these policies do not appear to lead to more murders or suicides. They do lead to lower recidivism. Despite the more lax security, escape is rare; only one prisoner escaped in 2014.
At Bastoy Prison in Norway, prisoners live and work as they would upon their release. They are admitted by application after serving part of their sentence elsewhere. Norway enjoys the lowest recidivism rate in Europe.
The idea behind punishing prisoners is that it will deter other people from committing crimes in the first place. I would argue that the loss of liberty is a significant deterrant, and that punishments like solitary confinement or stripping away basic amenities are overkill. This is not because I have a soft spot for criminals. Each defendant I work with is different, and my job is to defend them to the best of my ability regardless of how I may personally feel, and regardless of their innocence or guilt. When you work in the criminal justice system, you have to set aside personal feelings, and the same can be said for implementing effective reform. Set aside personal feelings, whether you lean toward softness or harshness, and examine the evidence.
Slowly, the United States is beginning to implement more sensible policies; for example, treating low-level drug offenders as people with a medical need instead of as criminals. Yet we’re still embattled, combining our Puritan roots with Wild West vigilante justice and, eventually, research-based prevention and rehabilitation. It will take continuous research and sustained political will to implement widespread changes that truly make a difference.