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July 23, 2017

"North Dakota’s Norway Experiment: Can humane prisons work in America? A red state aims to find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new Mother Jones piece.  Here are a few excerpts from a piece that justifies a full read:

Scandinavian prisons tend to elicit eye rolls from law-and-order types weaned on the punitive American model.  Yet a growing number of state corrections officials are coming to the realization that our approach is ineffective, costly, and cruel.  Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, cites the nation’s staggering recidivism rate — 77 percent of inmates released from state prisons are rearrested within five years.  “Once you realize that this system isn’t working well,” he says, “it’s fairly easy to pivot to: ‘How do we do something different?'”...

North Dakota has advantages as a laboratory for correctional reforms. Like Norway, it is sparsely populated and relatively homogeneous — race-based prison gangs hold little sway here.  Another advantage, Don Specter told me, is simply that the state government is sufficiently small that it can be responsive to the exertions of a visionary leader.  Yet [North Dakota prisons chief Leann] Bertsch and [deputy Karianne] Jackson have no illusions about transforming their system into a corrections utopia overnight.  “You have to pace yourself,” Bertsch says.

The Norwegian principle of “dynamic security” posits that warm relationships between inmates and staff reduce the potential for violence. American prisons typically try to create safe conditions by means of oppressive rules, random searches, and the threat of additional punishment. Transitioning from one approach to the other requires a profound paradigm shift and the ability to sell front-line prison workers on a brand new mindset.  “How do you get somebody who thinks they’re in law enforcement to figure out you need to be more of an empath, more of a social worker, a friend, and a mentor?” Jackson asks.

The correctional officers I met at the state penitentiary, ex-military all, weren’t outwardly hostile to the idea of cultivating relationships with prisoners, but it clearly didn’t come naturally to them.  For that reason, perhaps, the brass created a mandate: Guards in the segregation unit must have at least two conversations per shift with each of the inmates under their supervision.  “It’s worth a shot,” a corrections officer named Josh Hedstrom told me.  “Because what we were doing before wasn’t working.”

July 23, 2017 at 05:31 PM | Permalink

Comments

It should work

Posted by: Docile/Kind Soul® in OR | Jul 24, 2017 5:33:22 AM

North Dakota is sparsely populated, white, rich, and very cold. It is not representative of the rest of the nation. There is virtually no crime there, anyway, because you need to fear your armed neighbors, not the police.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 24, 2017 8:56:15 AM

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