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May 13, 2016

"Maximum security Nordic 'open prisons' look more like college dorms than penitentiaries"

Rtr2pcsdThe title of this post is the headline of this Tech Insider piece (which includes lots of interesting pictures). Here are excerpts:

In countries like Finland, Sweden, and Norway, maximum-security prisons look more like college dorms than stone-cold penitentiaries. In these facilities, which are known as "open prisons," inmates aren't kept in tiny cells with near-zero daylight.

They're given full access to roam around the prison's grounds, the ability to watch TV, and the trust not to abuse those privileges.  In essence, criminals are treated more like people than as forces of evil.

"We are parents, that's what we are," Kirsti Njeminen, then-governor of Finland's Kerava prison, told the New York Times in 2003.  More than a decade later, the philosophy has stayed the same.  As a result, the places that house Northern Europe's most violent offenders might as well be showrooms at Ikea. If the policies seem more like "decarceration," that's by design.

Finland in the mid-20th century looked a lot like the US does today. Imprisonment rates were high, and the policy didn't seem to be doing much good to rehabilitate anyone.  But then a group of researchers discovered the unlikely solution: Relax the policies. "The lesson from Finland was that it was perfectly possible to drop the use of imprisonment [by two-thirds,]" Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, head of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Helsinki, tells PRI, "and that did not disturb the crime trend development in Finland."  The lesson soon spread through Northern Europe: If you treat even the worst offenders as people, giving them a chance to integrate back into society, they'll often turn around....

In Kerava prison, inmates tend their own gardens. Visitors can even stroll through the garden and buy the plants directly from the prison. And at the Suomenlinna open prison, inmates live in communal housing.  The only partition from the outside world is white picket fencing.  There is no barbed wire in sight.

Scholars debate endlessly whether a country as big and diverse as the US could implement such a system.  Nordic countries have only a few million people, mostly of homogeneous ethnicities, so opponents of the Nordic model tend to argue the results can't be replicated in an immigrant-rich country of more than 300 million.

Those who are more hopeful say there is nothing particular in the DNA of Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes that makes them more peaceful.  Instead, they may be products of their environment just as much as those who go on to re-offend in the US.  The only difference may be the degree to which people are given the opportunity to change.

May 13, 2016 at 07:44 AM | Permalink

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