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May 23, 2014

"Treating Prisoners With Dignity Can Reduce Crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal commentary authored by Nicholas Turner and John Wetzel. The piece's subheadline is "In Europe, prisoners work for real wages and even cook for themselves. And when they leave prison, they don't come back." And here are excerpts:

It sounds like the first line of a joke: "Three state corrections teams and some experts who are old hands at visiting prisons go to meet their warden counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands in mid-January to see what they could learn."

But it's a true story — and what high-level delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera Institute of Justice's European-American Prison Project is no laughing matter. What we learned, in fact, has serious and timely boots-on-the-ground implications....

For those of us who visited Germany and The Netherlands, the approach to sentencing and the prison philosophy we saw astonished and inspired us.  Not only are far fewer people imprisoned, but even those who have committed serious violent crimes serve far shorter sentences.

In these European countries, prisons are organized around the belief that, since virtually all prisoners will return to their communities, it is better to approach their incarceration with conditions as close to "normal" as possible — with the addition of treatment, behavioral interventions, skills training, and needed education — and to remove them from communities for the shortest possible time so that institutional life does not become their norm.

Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. Inmates have privacy — correctional officers knock before entering — they wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish.  They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education.  Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release.  There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals — to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders, and consequently receive more training and higher pay.  There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other "dangerous" implements.  And their maximum time in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.

Prison policies grounded in the belief that prisoners should be treated with dignity were startlingly effective — and have eminently pragmatic implications here at home.  The adverse social and economic outcomes for former prisoners in the U.S. are severe — and they are concentrated in communities that are already struggling mightily.  With 95 percent of our nation's incarcerated individuals eventually returning home from prison — and 40 percent going right back to prison within three years — we would do well to heed the strategies used in these nations to teach prisoners how to be good and productive citizens that can rebuild their communities....

Are there challenges to wholesale reform?  Of course.  Money.  Infrastructure. Strains of racial division borne of our history and heterogeneity.  And, cultural differences especially as relates to violence may mean that some European practices may not translate smoothly to the U.S.  Yet we are at a moment of potential for significant shifts.  It will require legislation and policy change, including rethinking sentencing for lower offenses and reducing the time for those who must be in prison.  But the notion that we should strive to create an environment within our prisons conducive to our goal — to return good citizens to our communities — is a challenge we can and must meet.

May 23, 2014 at 10:23 AM | Permalink


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It cannot work here, at least not on a large scale, because of our irreconcilable racial and class differences in our society. Make no mistake, the situation regarding race and lack of a father is irreversible until the return to a constitutional republic is created, ensuring a society that promotes individual responsibility.

Europeans are more indoctrinated into a socialist society, so their family values are already adjusted as much for them. The level of criminal in Europe is about equivalent to the criminal level in the US in the 1950's, which is far lower but more heterogeneous and more indicative of a society that still had a semblance of placing individual rights and the family as the ideal situation as a rule, not a sad, uncommon exception.

Posted by: Eric Knight | May 23, 2014 7:54:51 PM

Finnish prisons, (correct me if wrong), used to be harsh maybe in the earlier 20th century, it is true that America as a society is way different and not has homogenous as countries like finland, although recent immigration and perception of folks many of whom are a Muslim, of leeching on society and not working is evident in countries like sweden.

I doubt the criminal justice system will change anytime soon as folks still have perceptions of being too lenient even if its not true.

Despite, federalism, states still follow similar criminal justice policies, it is true that incarceration rates may be different and policies different in the states,but there are a lot of similarities.

States could be laboratories for democracy by experimenting which prison policy, but its unlikely anytime soon, san francisco did try to have a different jail policy for certain offenders.

Posted by: Alex | May 25, 2014 2:23:14 PM

The former warden of Folsom, San Quentin and Alcatraz has something to say about this in a book he wrote in 1937.

The Prison Life is Different title may or may not be a play on "death is different."

Posted by: George | May 25, 2014 3:10:52 PM

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