In the UK, the function of prisons is to serve justice and protect others. But this is entangled in political agendas. At what point in an inmate’s life does the focus need to shift from punishment to considering rehabilitation and prevention?


Norway’s humane example

A few select Scandinavian prisons are examples of an alternative way. Instead of politicising criminal justice, policy-making is often left to professional criminologists who develop results-based strategies.

This leads to a humanistic approach. Halden is one of Norway’s largest prisons with 251 inmates, nearly half of whom are imprisoned for violent crimes including murder, assault and rape. They live surrounded by 12 acres of blueberry woods.

The Norwegian sentencing system has a maximum term of 21 years and thus no life sentences. In this system is Anders Breivik, amongst the most high-profile killers in recent years, who killed 77 people and injured hundreds when he detonated a bomb at an Oslo government building and opened fire at a summer camp close by. However, Breivik’s sentence of ‘preventive detention’ means his term can be extended indefinitely for five years at a time if he is still thought to be a threat to society.

Inside Halden, every cell has a private toilet, shower, flat-screen television, personal fridge and pine desks. Beyond the material, the Norwegian Correctional Service works to provide a social safety net, job and home for each inmate prior to their release. They can also rely on Norway’s free health care, education and pension. Gudrun Molden, one of the prison’s architects, states that: ‘this punishment, taking away their freedom — the sign of that is the wall, of course’. Some would argue this symbolic pointing does not serve justice, but is that really the role of the prison itself? Perhaps justice comes from the Judge’s verdict, from restricted freedoms and primarily, one’s own thoughts.

A notable philosophy of The Correctional Service is ‘dynamic security’ which encourages interpersonal relationships between staff and inmates. This is seen as a polar opposite to the ‘static security’ approach adopted in the US where correction officers are trained to have as little interaction with inmates as possible, thereby reducing the risk of an altercation. But being taught to avoid inmates leaves little hope for successful reintegrating into society — this is not the aim. Schemes promoting literacy, debate and employability in prisons must also be accompanied by inclusion and respect through basic socialisation.

The science-based approach also lends itself to encouraging natural treatments, such as the quantifiable benefit of sunlight and fresh air in helping to treat depression and anxiety. The prison’s governor, Are Høidal, emphasises that ‘we look at what kind of neighbour you want to have when they come out’.

Different aims, different outcomes

In considering the rational goal of ensuring thee people do not reoffend, Norway produces exceptional results. Just 20 per cent of Norwegian prisoners return to jail within two years, which is among the lowest in the world, compared with 50-60 per cent in the US. Nearly all of the violent incidents which occur at Halden take place in Unit A, its most restrictive unit, which may indicate that a restrictive environment directly promotes violence. In 2018, a study found that prison officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder to the same levels as people who have been in war zones. Officers are clearly paying the price of policy considerations aimed at administering justice as politics allows.

Leann Bertsch, head of North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, notes that in the US, there is nothing in court orders that tells prisons to inflict punishment or cause pain: ‘So I don’t know how over time we thought treating people like animals or less than human was part of our mission’, says Bertsch. It is when we take our own preconceived prejudices in tow and take justice into our own hands that we see prison systems failing.

HMP Parc in Bridgend, South Wales holds up to 60 boys aged between 15 to 18. It emerged in a report by the prison’s watchdog that young offenders were being allowed to make Skype calls to friends and family and being given in-cell telephones.

In the UK, 90 per cent of prisoners have mental health problems. The sensationalised media coverage of this aspect of prison life that arguably enables young people to retain a sense of normal social interaction, does not  contribute to their rehabilitation.

A report by the Prison Reform Trust reveals that many people who should have been sent to mental health or social care facilities end up entering prisons which are ill-equipped to meet their needs. Out of 57 Independent Monitoring Boards who responded to the Report, over twenty boards responded stating that they frequently saw prisoners who were too ill to be in prison.

Further to this, the needs for women in prisons are different still. In the US, an estimated 4 to 9 percent of women come to prisons pregnant and those who give birth whilst there are rarely allowed to spend time with their child after birth. The only programme in the US allowing women to keep their newborns with them in prison is at the Bedford Hills, a women’s prison in New York.

In the UK, the case is still dire as prisons do not regularly record whether inmates have children under the age of 18, yet 57 per cent of women surveyed in 2018-19 said they did. Going to prison means a complete detachment from society.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, put it well:

‘The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons’.

Lessons can be taken from Norway’s results-driven policy to create a prison system with lower levels of re-offending. If we view the object of prisons as punishment then we move further away from untangling the web of problems many inmates have that keep them inside. A humane touch, whatever the reasoning for it, produces better results.